Heaven’s Mirror: Music and the nostalgia of immigrants

By Arturo Conde – Univision

Immigrants often rely on different objects to help them remember the rich details of their homelands. These mementos can evoke the smells of their childhood kitchen, the feeling of family holidays, and the sounds of everyday street-life from their homes. The Portuguese call this sense of nostalgia, “saudade,” a deep longing for something in a person’s mind that has become both elusive and ephemeral. The urge to fill these emotional spaces, which are created in the absence of someone or someplace, is exactly the theme of Joshua Dylan Mellars’ new music film, Heaven’s Mirror.

Mellars’ film documents the way that “Fado” music captures the emotion and nostalgia of a Portuguese immigrant community in the United States. But the stories that are depicted, told through the resonance of guitars and soulful singing, are much more universal, and can appeal to many Latino immigrants. “When one person leaves, she has to feel lonely,” said Madalena Pata, a Portuguese immigrant Fado singer. “We feel sick inside because we have nobody to relate to.” And when Pata sings on stage, the listener can hear that sickness and longing in her music.

Fado music, like the Blues or Tango, carries the stigma that you have to be old to sing it. Listeners of Fado often expect their singers to have been beaten up by life, so that they can perform each song with ownership and honesty. But the emotions that this music evokes are ageless, and each song delivers small existential truths to both the old and the young. Fadistas like Ana Moura, who was invited to sing with the Rolling Stones, bases the lyrics of her songs on the hardships of immigrant life, which she likens to the adventures of early Portuguese navigators. “Your body gave everything. Now it courses through the world’s veins. With the force of the earth and sea fruitful and fertile…”

Many Fadistas often look towards the rivers and oceans for inspiration. It’s as if those bodies of water beckon them to explore the world. It is inconceivable for these singers to acquire the knowledge of those experiences by staying home. And this drive to discover something meaningful in an unknown territory compels them to use Fado as a map and compass to find their placement in the world.

Like many immigrants, this spirit of adventure inspired Mellars. He set out to explore Iberian culture in 1997 while doing a study abroad program in Madrid. That year, he travelled through Spain and Portugal with the hope of learning about and connecting with his maternal grandmother’s Spanish heritage. This interest in Iberian culture later motivated him to move to Venezuela, Argentina and Brazil to work as a journalist. Mellars hoped to experience a deeper connection between Spain, Portugal and the Americas. But his passion for Iberian and American cultures remained divided until he revisited his alma mater, Brown University. There, he rediscovered Fado music by spending time with the Portuguese community in Providence, Rhode Island; something that helped him bring together all of those places and experiences into different songs.

Fado music can mean many things to listeners. It can convey nostalgia for the future, as well as the past; nostalgia for things that were never experienced, and people who were never met. Fado music can also offer listeners a sense of certainty that they are fated to travel to those unknown places, and meet those unknown people. It is this sense of destiny that allows immigrants to compare themselves to early explorers, who set out into unchartered territory with the expectation of finding something different, and hopefully better.

At the end of Heaven’s Mirror, Mellars questions his success in making the film: “Six years, 33,000 nautical miles … Is it ridiculous to bankrupt oneself in search of a feeling?” This type of question may be familiar to many immigrants, who wonder why they endure so many hardships far away from their homes. The truth-filled verses of a Fado song can help them see the world from the eyes of Portuguese navigators, who knew that, while they sailed so close to the abyss, the ocean was also a reflection of heaven and their dreams.

The world premiere of Heaven’s Mirror will be at the Santa Rosa International Film Festival in Kenwood, California on September 17th at 6 pm, and in Santa Rosa, California on September 18th at 4 pm.