A Journey Around the Globe with Portes

You may not know me yet, but I’m Portes. Nice to meet you. Portes came into being in the summer of 2018, like Venus coming out of the ocean riding on her seashell. Portes is the exploration of a new music identity that finally feels comfortable. I’ve been singing and songwriting for decades. I’ve had bands in the past, but eventually decided to go solo to have more creative flexibility, and sing and create the kind of music that I enjoy listening to and playing. I didn’t want to sing other people’s songs anymore; I wanted to sing my songs.

What does Portes sound like? I think the answer lies in whatever is inspiring me. No pigeonholes here. Before transmuting into Portes, there was more folk music in my song catalogue. But with the development of my artistry, I’m happy to find that sweet spot in dream pop, synth pop, electronica, and ambient music. That’s not to say that it’s where I reside all the time. There’s R&B as well. And, with all my fond high school memories of listening to Pearl Jam and Nirvana in the 1990s, I simply love that “grunge” sound and am making my way back to it with my own personal Portes touch, especially in my upcoming album, “National Anthems,” slated for President’s Day 2020.

I have a diverse family and educational background that informs my music. I was born in Guatemala and adopted as a baby. I came to the United States at six-month-old and was raised in Littleton, Colorado. After graduating from high school, I attended the University of Denver where I studied Art History and Anthropology. I was afforded the opportunity to travel to Europe during my junior year and I had amazing cultural experiences. I love to travel, and I fell in love with Germany. After college graduation, I worked various jobs and after being in retail and traveling around the country for jewelry shows, I decided to return to school to pursue a Master’s degree in Genetic Anthropology and International Development from Colorado State University.

My degree included a research internship in Haiti. I lived there in 2007, in the mountain town of Fermathe. My home base was a residential facility called Wings of Hope. Children and adults with disabilities lived there and were cared for by Haitian staff and medical providers that visited from the US, Canada, and Europe. I traveled throughout the country, studying how individuals with disabilities and genetic disorders were treated within the Haitian culture. It was a life-transforming experience that brought joy and purpose to my life. I also made wonderful friends with whom I have stayed in contact to this day.

The night I came home from Haiti, I woke up in a cold, panicked sweat, disoriented and not knowing where I was. I hit the pillow again and realized I was home… but home now felt foreign. I walked down the aisle of my local grocery store and felt exactly like Jeremy Renner’s character, Staff Sergeant William James, in The Hurt Locker. I was completely overwhelmed by American affluence after three intense months living much more modestly.

Fermathe, Haiti

While living in Haiti, some days we had electricity, other days we didn’t. Some nights, Wings of Hope ran the generator so we could watch TV, or, in my case, work on my graduate thesis on my laptop. Other nights, my roommate Gretchen and I would light candles and play cards, talk about life, love, faith, or play backgammon with a kind, but grizzled old man named Claude. He was a character for sure. He wore a patch over his left eye and was a “fixer.” He would fix all kinds of things for the children and adults at Wings of Hope.

Haiti lacks infrastructure in all senses of the word.  Very few roads are paved. There are only a few light signals in Port-au-Prince. Public transportation is an unorganized system of vans, buses, and trucks called “Tap Taps” because you literally tap on the side or the roof of the vehicle to indicate a stop. These are often brightly colored with music blaring. I’ve ridden on the top of a bus in the middle of the night with a “boyfriend” I met there.

In the mountains of Fermathe, staff would collect trash and toss it down the hill behind the building. At first, coming from my privileged background of waste management every Wednesday morning, this was appalling. Sometimes animals, such as goats, would scavenge the land looking for remnants to nibble on.

The coined phrase, “if it’s yellow, let it mellow; if it’s brown, flush it down,” never rang truer than while living there, except the one time I was visiting Port-au-Prince and had to use a communal toilet.

There was no home for trash in Haiti and refuse would spill down the hillsides and flow to the shores and sea after a rain. Some Haitians would use their ingenuity and create art from the trash, to make valuable commodities for others, or, on the most basic level, to feed their families.. That is one thing I miss from living there: all the vibrant colors on canvases sold on the streets to tourists; reclaimed wood resembling a Christ figure or a “Restavek” in tattered clothing (the word comes from the French “rester avec,” which means “to stay with,” as in a slave, usually a child), or an animal. Some artisans reused old steel metal drums to create beautiful pieces of metal work with intricate details.

Forward to today, it’s starting to feel like our trash is out of control even here in Denver, Colorado. I obsess over recycling to the point of feeling guilty if I miss an item. I hear reports that China doesn’t want our recycling anymore. So, what’s the long-term plan? I think about this often and I’m trying to find ways to reduce my plastic usage even more. One of the things our household is considering is purchasing glass containers rather than using plastics to hold food. We use canvas bags for groceries, rather than plastic or paper bags. I’ve also been researching homemade recipes for shampoo and other hygiene products to avoid buying plastic bottles. And there’s always the option of not buying so many products wrapped in plastics in the first place.

After those three months living in Haiti, I changed several personal habits of mine including unplugging most electronic devices, recycling more, driving less, using less water while brushing my teeth, and turning off lights in rooms unoccupied, just to name a few. You don’t have to have lived in Haiti to make your own changes in the world. I encourage each person who listens to “Human” to find that one thing that motivates them to make the world a better place and to get involved in a way that makes sense and that brings out their own passion for change. “Human” is just one part of my contribution to art and climate change. What will yours be?

To learn more about the political turmoil and current revolution in Haiti, see “Demonstrators in Haiti Are Fighting for an Uncertain Future” in The New Yorker and listen to the Haitian band Anmwey.

(Top image: Photo by Sierra Voss)

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Denver-based singer-songwriter Portes is not afraid to go head to head with controversial societal topics in her latest single, “Human.” She uses her angelic, lullaby-style singing to weave thoughtful, reflective lyrics into a striking song that implores the listener to unify and take action to improve human rights and global warming. Can you make a difference? She and her son, who joins her on “Human,” believe that you can.

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