Héctor Aizpurúa, Jr. recounts his journey from remedial English classes to writing his honors thesis on the musical traditions of the displaced people of the Panama Canal.
By Megan Mendenhall, originally posted on October 11, 2023
All Héctor Aizpurúa, Jr. can see is miles of dead treetops reaching the surface of Gatún Lake.
As he looks out over the water, he tries to picture what the land looked like before it was flooded to create part of the Panama Canal.
For his undergraduate honors thesis, the Winston-Salem native traveled to Panama this past summer to gather source documents about the music and customs of the Panamanians who were forced from their land to create the canal — and lost their way of life in the process. Through writing about their music and culture, Aizpurúa hopes this group of people will not be forgotten.
“One way to give somebody their spirit back is to talk about their music, their culture, and who they were, as opposed to just saying 40,000 people lost their homes and now they’re gone,” he explains.
Upon starting college three years ago, Aizpurúa never would have dreamed he’d have the opportunity to engage in such a project — let alone the drive and interest to pursue it.
A circuitous path to Carolina
In high school, Aizpurúa focused more on creating beats in GarageBand, a digital audio program, than on his schoolwork. He struggled to connect with his teachers, who expected him to act more like his older brother, a model student.
As a result of these strained relationships, he lost interest in school and did the bare minimum to get by.
“I was flunking my way through high school,” he says. “I could make a zero in the class and then get an 80 or 90 on the final exam, and I’d still pass with a D. When I got out of high school, I didn’t want to go to college. I was just going to work.”
His plan went smoothly until he tore his ACL playing soccer. The injury prevented him from walking, and since his job required physical work, he had to quit.
Left with no other options, he decided to try school again. He enrolled in two classes at Guilford Technical Community College (GTCC), where he was required to take remedial English and math courses due to his low high school GPA.
The classes started at a basic level and advanced quickly. Unlike high school, Aizpurúa connected with his professors. He slowly realized he wasn’t a bad student. He just didn’t learn the material properly in high school.
“By the end of the semester, I felt like what I learned mattered,” Aizpurúa explains. “I could actually write and not be embarrassed about what I was writing, and I could do math at a higher level than I previously could.”
Aizpurúa’s next epiphany occurred when he took an electronic music course taught by GTTC professor Mark Dillon.
“Dr. Dillon was my first ‘I want to be like him’ professor,” Aizpurúa says. “He was super passionate about music, and when he had better students, he would form bands and play with them.”
In Aizpurúa’s eyes, Dillon had the best job ever: He got paid to play and teach music all day. Aizpurúa wanted to do something similar, so he asked Dillon how he became a professor. Dillion studied guitar performance as an undergraduate and eventually returned to school to earn a master’s degree and PhD in music education.
“That’s when it started to click in my head,” Aizpurúa shares. “Education is important to getting somewhere in life, at least for what I want to do. And I felt smart for the first time since middle school. I felt like I could actually achieve something.”
A spark of an idea
After graduating from GTCC with a 4.0, Aizpurúa continued his education at UNC–Chapel Hill. He began his studies as a music education major, but he had an inner dilemma. He didn’t think playing music was enough and felt that he had to do more with it.
Aizpurúa’s parents are from Panama, and growing up, he loved listening to Panamanian music. He wanted to learn more about it, but always came up empty-handed when he tried to find information or sheet music. At GTCC, he had toyed with writing the history of Panamanian music, but the logistics of such a project quickly overwhelmed him, so he jotted the idea down to think about later.
As a major research institution, UNC-Chapel Hill provides access to an abundance of resources and professors — and Aizpurúa knew he’d have an easier time exploring the topic here. He just needed to figure out how to start.
At the time, Aizpurúa was taking a Latin American history course with Miguel La Serna who provided him with a reading list and guidance.
One of the books on the list, “Erased: The Untold Story of the Panama Canal,” completely changed Aizpurúa’s perspective on Panama. It chronicles the displacement of the Panamanian people who lived in the canal zone when it was being built and shows how it destroyed their cultures and histories.
“For my entire life, my perception of the Panama Canal was that it was a jungle, and the U.S. came, built the canal, and that’s what made the area famous,” Aizpurúa says.
Because these displaced people were often depicted as uneducated or uncivilized, Aizpurúa strives to portray them in a better light — and is doing so through the history of their music and culture.
A treasure trove of sources
After narrowing his research topic, Aizpurúa needed to find sources and expanded his search to Panama, where he traveled to in June 2023.
He visited the President Roberto F. Chiari Library and the National Library of Panama, where he discovered sources detailing the culture, traditions, and music of the country going back to the early 1900s. He also got access to collections at Georgetown University and the University of Florida.
Now, Aizpurúa is translating and organizing the documents he collected over the summer and turning them into his honors thesis.
“I hope that the paper gives more detail into who these people were, and adds to the literature,” Aizpurúa says.
He will defend his thesis in November and give a lecture and perform a selection of Panamanian folk music at the Carrboro Arts Center in December. Upon graduating in May 2024, he plans to apply to graduate school to study Latin American history.
“These professors who I worked with on this project changed my life completely,” Aizpurúa says. “And I would like to be that person for a future student. I would like to be the person who changes their life and gives them a direction and a purpose.”
Hector Aizpurúa is a senior majoring in music and minoring in history within the UNC College of Arts and Sciences.
Special thanks to David Garcia, a professor in the Department of Music within the UNC College of Arts and Sciences, and to Pragmasio Loo, a retired chief engineer with the Dredging Division of the Panama Canal Authority.
This research was funded in part by a Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship from the Office for Undergraduate Research, The Mildred Brown Mayo Undergraduate Research Fund in Music, and the University of Florida’s Special & Area Studies Collections travel grant.