It is 8 am on a cool breezy Saturday near the US. Mexico border somewhere between El Paso and Juarez. The rolling landscape is mostly brownish yellow dirt, sand and scrub. A mountain range is backlit by a bluish sky in the distance- The most glaring feature, though, is a twenty-five foot fence- stretching for miles in an east-west direction. The reddish brown metal bars are as thick as a man’s leg.
I am here with four young musicians who make up the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP) String Quartet. They have come to this somewhat desolate spot for a video shoot. They are performing a piece by Mexican composer Silvestre Revueltas who became famous in the 1930’s for orchestral and symphonic compositions merging classical music with Mexican inspired themes. The somewhat dissonant strains of Revueltas String Quartet #2 echo through the desert landscape and attract the attention of people living on the Mexican side. There is a humble settlement there, with several dozen homes made of cinder blocks, metal roofs and wood beams.
Violinist Eduardo Garcia was born about fifty miles away in El Paso.
– “I thought it was unreal I didn’t know anyone was going to come listen-you know you think the wall the border fence is a very distant remote thing but there’s people living close to it-just feet away from where they’re still constructing it-
Garcia and the other quartet members would be performing the Revueltas piece at the Music Unwound Festival in El Paso later that day. The festival’s theme this year is Copland in Mexico. It is an exploration of how one of America’s iconic composers, Aaron Copland, was influenced by his visits south and the music of composers such as Revueltas.
Mexico was America’s Cultural Mecca in the 1930’s
Joe Horowitz is the Director of Music Unwound. “It recalls a moment in the 1930’s when Mexico was a cultural mecca” Horowitz says many American intellectuals made the pilgrimage south “people like Steinbeck, Langston Hughes, Eisenstein, Copland , Strand, they’re all going to Mexico for the same reason, which is that artists and intellectuals are driving social change and it amazes the world”
Revueltas was part of that creative explosion which was happening in concert with the real explosions of the Mexican Revolution. He scored the 1935 film Redes, which deals with the hardships of a downtrodden fishing village in Veracruz. Mexico. The movie was a collaboration with the great American photographer Paul Strand and Director Fred Zinnemann.
“It epitomizes what can be accomplished through collaboration,” says Horowitz.
The centerpiece of the Festival was three performances featuring screenings of Redes with the El Paso Symphony Orchestra playing the movie’s score live.
A Timely Reminder
Coincidentally, this year the festival took place at a time when relations between Mexico and the U.S are strained thanks mostly to vitriolic anti-Mexican rhetoric by President Donald Trump. A rhetoric does not go down well in El Paso where eighty percent of the population is Hispanic and where tens of thousands of people cross the border legally every day.
Music Unwound is a collaboration between more than a dozen orchestras, Universities, and music historians across the country. The consortium performs yearly festivals in underserved communities of color. In El Paso, Texas- UTEP is the hosting institution. Doctor Lorenzo Calendaria is an Associate Provost at UTEP and he says the festival was very timely. “It’s highlighting the glories of Mexico in the 1930’s and I think that it bears reminding especially at a time when a lot of the rhetoric that is being thrown around is what’s dangerous about Mexico, what’s not acceptable about Mexico in some American’s point of view”
Tornillo, Texas is a hardscrabble hamlet of roughly three thousand people, thirty miles south of El Paso. It is one of a handful of small towns where Unwound Workshops were held at local high schools. Students were also invited to the concerts. Jarred Flores is a 15 year-old sophomore at Tornillo High and he was one of those who participated in the workshops. “A large majority of our community is Hispanic and it’s important to know that there are Mexican composers and artists who come out and they become successful,” Flores says the festival gave him a new respect for the power of classical music from Mexico. “It’s something that can excite people it’s been used to start revolutions it’s been used in wars and I found that interesting as well”
Eine Kleine Border Wall Musik
Back at the border, the UTEP String Quartet members realize they have an audience: Two children no older than five or six. They are wearing pajamas and peer curiously through the bars. Cellist Nathan Black was born in Virginia – “On the other side the children they come up to the fence and are as friendly as can be and on our side there are border patrol agents everywhere and people telling us not necessarily be here. I find it shocking. Why are we on the defensive when we’re simply here to play music and the other side is welcoming it”
The young musicians decide to stop playing Revueltas, move closer to the fence and serenade the two astounded children with Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik. Smiles of wonderment light up the children’s faces as they watch and listen. The quartet members say it was a bittersweet interlude. Orlando Barajas is a violinist from Guadalajara, Mexico. “Now we have this wall separating countries and cultures. People from America are on the defensive and we don’t know why.” For violinist Sandra Rivera, who is from El Salvador, this almost magical moment, this litlle border wall music, is an example of what is and what could be. “There is so much hate and that’s not what we want and hopefully the music can change that.”
Violinist Eduardo Garcia looks at the fence stretching for miles and agrees, “We shouldn’t be building walls we should be building bridges. I think music does that.”
Armando Trull is an Emmy Winner, Senior Reporter WAMU 885 in Washington, DC region. Contributor: Huffington Post; NPR; The Take Away; Here & Now; NAHP.