The DACA Generation Has Their Stories Told In This Immigration Opera

by Catherine Womack

March 2, 2018
A scene from "Cruzar la Cara de la Luna," where a coyote smuggler brings a family across the desert. Photo by Luis Luque.


An old art form gets a new life that reflects the diversity of America today.

While an elderly man rests his ailing body in bed, his son sits on a stool beside him holding a guitar in his hands. He begins to play. Above the plucked notes, the son’s voice rises, singing a Mexican folk ballad, “En Frágiles Alas” (“On Fragile Wings”), to his bedridden father. The song tells the story of the death of a caterpillar, the son explains. Then, he clarifies: “Actually, it’s about the life of a butterfly.”

His father slowly awakens to the tale of transitions, transformations, and new beginnings. He looks around, disoriented and confused; he can’t remember the names or faces of his immediate family members. But the old man remembers the song flowing from the guitar. It’s the same song he used to sing to his son when he was younger, he says, connecting the present moment to his distant past. Through the nostalgic song, the son signals to his father: “As you once cared for me, now I’ll care for you.”

Emotions ran high at a recent performance of “Cruzar la Cara de la Luna” (“To Cross the Face of the Moon”) at the Younes and Soraya Nazarian Center for the Performing Arts in Northridge, California. Onstage, baritone Gregorio González performed the heartfelt ballad discussed above to tenor Daniel Rodríguez, who played his father, Laurentino. Surrounding the duo were a dozen sharply-dressed mariachi players — their wide-brimmed sombreros propped in front of them as they played their violins, guitars, and trumpets. As González sang his song of the mariposas, the mariachi joined in with their instruments and voices, filling out the rich harmonies.

José “Pepe” Martinez’s mariachi opera premiered at Houston Grand Opera in 2010, and it has been performed across the United States and in Paris to rave reviews. It’s been called the “immigration opera,” telling the stories of a Mexican man who leaves his family behind to cross the barren landscape of the desert on a journey to find work in Texas. It’s an emotional story that’s relevant today.

But the Southern California premiere was especially poignant. 

In the audience were 58 DREAMers, all student recipients of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, along with more than 100 of their family members. 

All the emotions that were going on in that room tonight — that was a taste of what the immigrant community is facing.

Among the DREAMers in attendance were 18-year-old Carlos Martinez and 23-year-old Sarai Arrona, both students at California State University, Northridge. Martinez, a freshman studying art education, says this performance of “Cruzar” marked the first time he had ever been to an opera. Arrona, who is studying early childhood development, says that while she had heard mariachi music her whole life, she had recently become a bigger fan of the genre after watching the 2017 Oscar-nominated Disney movie “Coco,” which heavily features Mexican folk and mariachi music.

When Martinez, Arrona, and the other DREAMers and their families were recognized from the stage before the performance, the crowd roared and cheered in response. The audience’s enthusiasm was a resounding show of support for a group of individuals whose lives and futures are currently held in complicated legal limbo, caught in the crossfire of contentious, hotly debated national politics. 

Just a day before the performance of “Cruzar,” Congress failed to pass a bill that would have secured the futures of DACA recipients. 

For many immigrants who were brought into the U.S. illegally as children, President Obama’s 2012 executive order enacting DACA was a lifeline. It meant that after filling out some paperwork and meeting certain educational requirements, they could study and work in the country they had called home most their lives. 

But in the fall of 2017, President Trump enacted his own executive order phasing out the DACA program. Since then, two federal judges have ordered the Trump administration to continue renewing DACA applications. But until the case is ruled on by the Supreme Court or until Congress passes a bill making DACA the law of the land, DREAMers like Martinez and Arrona face an uncertain future

For many DREAMers in the audience at the Younes and Soraya Nazarian Center for the Performing Arts (“the Soraya” for short), the story of “Cruzar” was familiar: It was their story. 

The opera depicts the life of Laurentino, a Mexican man who, in the 1960s, left his wife, Renata, and young son, Rafael, behind in Mexico to find work in the United States. Missing her husband and longing for a united family life, Renata employs a “coyote” smuggler to take her and Rafael across the border to Texas.

The arduous journey proves too much for Renata, who falls ill and dies in the desert. The coyote leaves her body there and takes the crying, traumatized Rafael back to Mexico. In that instant, a family is divided, and a father and son are separated. 

“Cruzar” unfolds in two settings: modern-day Houston where Laurentino lies dying, surrounded by his American-born son, Mark, and 1960s Michoacan, Mexico, where Laurentino has flashbacks of his happy life as a young man with Renata and Rafael. Throughout the opera, the migration of the monarch butterflies serves as a metaphor. Like the music of the mariachi, butterflies can’t be constrained by borders or walls. 

“All I had to hear was ‘mariachi opera’ and I was in,” says the production’s director, Dan Guerrero. “There are some gigs that are very special, and this is one of them. I’m always trying to do something with meaning, something that will educate as well as entertain.” 

Guerrero says the opera is an opportunity for audiences to discover there is more to mariachi music than what they may have experienced over margaritas and enchiladas at their favorite local Mexican restaurant.

“A true mariachi ensemble is full of serious musicians,” he says. “They all play several instruments. They all sing. And they are masters of their craft.”

Mariachi music originated in western Mexico in the mid-1800s. It was also the product of global migration; it is a combination of Mexican folk idioms and theatrical Spanish orchestra music. 

Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlán, the band that performed at the Soraya in “Cruzar,” is one of the world’s oldest and most esteemed mariachi ensembles. A decade ago, Anthony Freud, then the general director of Houston Grand Opera, attended one of Mariachi Vargas’ performances in Houston. The rapturous performance gave him an idea. 

Freud was struck by how much Mariachi Vargas’ performance reminded him of opera. There was the big full-throated singing, the inherently story-driven music, and the heightened emotional drama of the mariachi’s sound. He called the leader of the Mariachi Vargas, José “Pepe” Martínez, and asked him to write an opera. 

To create the story for “Cruzar,” Martínez collaborated with opera director Leonard Foglia, who wrote the lyrics and text for the piece. 

“The opera world is expanding in every way,” Foglia explains. “There are jazz operas and tango operas and operas that use electronic sounds in very contemporary ways. There need to be even more. Let’s tell stories. And more importantly, let’s tell stories through a musical vernacular that is not Western or European.” 

Foglia points out that for most of opera history, stories have been told through European idioms. “It didn’t matter where the story took place. It could be in Tahiti or Argentina or China, but it was going to be told through that European tradition. That I think is part of the breakthrough of ‘Cruzar.’ It says ‘not only are your stories important, your music is important too.’” 

Opera singers Suzanna Guzmán and Juan Mendoza in "Cruzar la Cara de la Luna." Photo by Luis Luque.

When most people hear the word “opera,” they immediately picture 19th-century Italian grand opera. There are sopranos and tenors singing in period costumes backed by a classical orchestra in the pit. The singers are mostly white. The audience is mostly white too, and more often than not, they’re older. 

But, as Foglia points out, even in the staunchly conservative, traditional world of opera, things are changing. 

In 2014, composer Laura Kaminsky wrote “As One,” a transgender woman’s coming-of-age story. That same year, composer Kamala Sankaram premiered “Thumbprint,” which told the true-life story of Pakistani rape survivor and activist Mukhtar Mai using Hindustani musical traditions melded with European ones. In 2017, Sankaram also composed an episodic virtual reality horror opera called “The Parksville Murders.”

In Los Angeles, MacArthur “genius grant” awardee Yuval Sharon’s wildly inventive opera company “The Industry” has moved operas out of the concert hall and into the streets with pieces like “Hopscotch,” which featured opera singers on motorcycles, rooftops, and inside limos, and “War of the Worlds,” which in 2017 unleashed singing aliens from outer space in parking lots across downtown L.A. 

And since he and Martínez wrote “Cruzar” in 2010, Foglia has been commissioned to write two more mariachi operas. What was once an anomaly is rapidly becoming its own beloved genre. 

“When I started out in the opera world 15 years ago, everyone was terrified of the new or the different,” Foglia says. “But I’ve watched this transformation. More and more, opera audiences are wanting the new. What is acceptable inside an opera house is changing.” 

And as that changes, audiences are discovering that the elements that Europeans in the 18th and 19th centuries loved about the art form are the same that draw in more diverse 21st-century audiences today. Regardless of the language or musical style, when a gifted singer communicates universal emotions through music, hearts are stirred. 

Photo by Luis Luque.

Back in the lobby of the Soraya after “Cruzar” concludes, the special guest DREAMers and their families gather for a photo together with the opera’s directors. There are smiles, but there are also tear-stained cheeks.

“What got to me was the part where they just left Renata in the desert,” Sarai Arrona says, hugging her mom tightly, drying her eyes. 

“It was very emotional,” Carlos Martinez agrees. “At the same time, it gave a perspective to people. I feel like sometimes people don’t realize that students like us come from families that went through what happened in the opera. People see DREAMers, undocumented people, or just people from immigrant communities, and they just see them as someone who has a different status. They don’t really realize that they’re human as well. All the emotions that were going on in that room tonight — that was a taste of what the immigrant community is facing. Stories like that touch home.”

And, he adds, the power of the mariachi’s sound enhanced the opera’s impact. When 12 beautiful, strong voices sing harmoniously in full force, the sensation is spectacular. 

“The music blew me off my seat,” Martinez beamed. “This was my first opera, but it won’t be my last.” 

Top illustration and share image by Tatiana Cardenas.

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The DACA Generation Has Their Stories Told In This Immigration Opera