Smile Politely

Javi Vasquez brings his Guatemalan roots to the C-U music scene

Javi Vasquez

When I heard that Champaign County had a thriving Guatemalan community, I was quite surprised. But for musician Javi Vasquez, it was the reason he decided to move here. For Vasquez, whose family hails from Guatemala City, this community presented an opportunity for him to ground himself in his roots while pursuing a Masters in Musical Education with Licensure (MME+L) at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Now working as a student teacher at The International Prep Academy, he’s glad at the opportunity to connect with his Guatemalan students on a deeper level.

Born Jose Javier Vasquez Monzon to Guatemalan parents in Syracuse, NY, Javi spent much of his childhood and youth moving around the country. But every year, the family would spend weeks and months at a time in Guatemala, where Vasquez could connect with his extended family and find a place to call home. As he says, “Guatemala was always there for me.” It seems that for Vasquez, Guatemala provided a sense of stability and a connection to his own heritage and a deeper part of himself. So much so, that in his adult life, he took steps to make that connection even more official, eventually gaining dual citizenship in Guatemala and the US. And, he says, he hopes to eventually settle there and raise a family. 

Javi Vasqez

The Latin American influence is immediately evident in Vasquez’s latest single, “No Hay Que Sufrir”, which was released in January. However, I was curious about his other musical influences and journey. Vasquez took me back to his early childhood when his parents bought him a guitar at the age of five. He took to music right away, but as he grew older, he began to feel constrained by his guitar teacher’s classical approach. It was his music teacher in school who happened to bring an electric bass to class one day that brought Vasquez face to face with his passion. He received an electric bass for his thirteenth birthday and has been loyal to the instrument since then. Throughout high school, he said, he took every opportunity to play bass as much as he could, playing in bands, and even taking up the double bass so he could play in orchestras. 

As Vasquez tells it, by the time he graduated from high school, he knew he wanted to pursue music professionally, which eventually brought him to the Berklee College of Music in Boston, where he majored in Performance with a minor in Theory of Jazz and Popular Song. Vasquez emphasized that his passion for both performance and composition comes from a love for contemporary popular music, “everything from Stevie Wonder to Dua Lipa.” For him, contemporary music is not only relevant, but it’s also one of the best ways to get kids interested in learning music. “This is what they’re listening to,” Vasquez says, and consequently, it’s what they want to learn to play. 

This love for contemporary music deeply informs Vasquez’s pedagogy. He wants kids to like learning music, and to find deeper connections with the world around them. As we talked, I was genuinely impressed with Vasquez’s dedication to his students, and subsequently, how this dedication dovetails with his love for his homeland. He told me that most of his Guatemalan students’ families come from a specific region in Guatemala, which encompasses the town of Santa Eulalia. This town is known as “la cuna de la marimba,” or “the cradle of the marimba,” Guatemala’s national instrument. Vasquez made a point of visiting this region over the holidays so that he could better understand where his students come from. He also spoke to me at length about the importance of marimba music in Guatemala, and how many of his students’ parents play in marimba bands here in Champaign County. Just recently, he said, he’d taken a friend to a marimba dance in Rantoul.

This is the point in our conversation when I expressed genuine yet very pleasant surprise that Champaign County was a focal point of marimba music. There’s something new to learn about our home every day. More importantly, I began to have a deeper understanding of what drew Vasquez to UIUC, and by extension, our corner of Illinois—as a student, educator, and musician. I asked Vasquez to tell me more about his experience as a musician in Champaign-Urbana, and how he sees his place in this community. “I hope to tie the Guatemalan community to what people are listening to,” he was quick to say. While Vasquez said he loved playing live, especially at Rose Bowl, he said that living in Champaign and pursuing his MME+L had given him the opportunity to focus inwardly on his songwriting. This, in turn, has given him the opportunity to delve even deeper into his own identity. While in the past he’s always tried to fit the mold of being either American or Guatemalan, he’s come to accept that he’s 100% both. This introspection inspired the lyrics for his song “En Otra Luz” on his latest single. Certainly, the experience of living in Champaign alongside the Guatemalans here has helped him come to terms with this dual identity, as he mentioned his hope to collaborate with the local marimba bands on some of his compositions.

Coming here for an MME+L, it’s easy for the Champaign chapter of his life to be a brief chapter. So I asked Vasquez what he had in mind for the future, and where Champaign-Urbana fit into it. “I’m at a point in my life where I just don’t know,” Vasquez replied truthfully and directly. But that’s just how he is, “como me lleve el viento,” he says, “wherever the wind may take me.” That’s understandable, of course. But with his work at IPA, substituting at various schools around town, teaching bass at The Upper Bout, and his dedication to lifting up the local Guatemalan community, it’s clear that Vasquez has already made an indelible mark here.

Before we ended our conversation and said our goodbyes, I made a point of asking Vasquez about the cover art on his new single, which is by Benyamin Negruha and depicts Downtown Champaign’s iconic Art Theatre. Vasquez moved to town in 2022, which means that he’s never been able to experience the magic of the Art Theatre firsthand before it closed in 2019. But as he walked down Church Street and thought about an unfinished song he was working on, he came across the theater and was immediately struck by the neon lights and marquee. The building became central for him in Champaign-Urbana, as he started to acclimate himself to a new place and think about how this place would fit into the story of his life. “This building is priceless,” he said to me, noting that he didn’t want to indicate any sign of the building’s price on the cover art. I was struck by how well Vasquez intrinsically understood the importance of this site in our community, so much so that he was driven to commemorate it alongside his music. While Vasquez has made a mark on C-U, it’s clear that C-U has also made a mark on Vasquez. More importantly, it’s clear that Vasquez understands this community and all its intricacies, from our beloved local landmarks to our immigrant communities.

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