Every once in awhile, things happen that were just meant to be. In spite of the obstacles, the light shines through. Miracles abound. Such was the miracle of music-making in Nogales, Sonora on January 23, 2014.
For the past three years I have walked across the border each week to Mexico, heading to the aid station called el comedor, the place of refuge for migrants traveling both south and north. Dodging machines that kick up the dust of the desert, and watching contractors build the infrastructure for a more secure port of entry at the border, I’ve pondered the humanitarian cost of this billion dollar project—this fortress in the desert. Last week I saw fractured limbs and deep gashes from missteps climbing over the wall and stumbles in the desert. A few weeks ago I held an eight day old infant, his mother stunned and immobilized, as she picked over the clothes and shoes the Samaritans carried to the comedor.
Hidden beneath our lofty ideals of security and sovereignty lies a grim truth: We’ve designed walls that hurt people. It is a serious trade-off. We attempt to control the movement of people across sensitive geography thereby inflicting suffering upon the bodies of the most vulnerable. Tons of tomatoes and chilis pass through the new port of entry on huge trucks, bringing Americans affordable food. The people, however, the ones who pick the fruit and harvest the crops, are cast aside and forgotten. They sit inside the comedor, dreaming of ways to breach the wall, trying to figure out how to earn enough money to survive today and tomorrow.
There has to be a better way to resolve this problem of borders and the violence we inflict on each other. People ought to be able to move from one area to another and retain their dignity as human beings.
Last summer, as my hopes for national comprehensive immigration reform and legislative action dried up like the parched earth of the desert floor, the germ of an idea began to develop.
I have another life, a life of making music. I thought about creating music with our Mexican neighbors to the south.
I pound the timpani in an excellent concert band in Green Valley, Arizona. Playing in orchestras and bands has been a lifelong avocation for me, keeping me sane when my work life as a nurse seemed overwhelming. Together with Tim Welch, Green Valley Concert Band President, we hatched a plan about performing a concert in Nogales, Mexico. We would call it “Horns Across the Border.”
The goal was to collaborate in a performance with the Nogales Municipal Band, but I learned that the band no longer met regularly, and so had disbanded. The question was, how do I get in contact with Mexican musicians so we can make music together? How can we rehearse together? Can they come to Green Valley? Should we travel to Mexico? Can the Mexican musicians cross the border? Is there any interest in Nogales?
Logistics were an issue. Should we stage a concert at the wall, with the Mexican musicians on one side, and our Green Valley Band on the other? We’ve built a wall that physically and psychologically hurts people. The wall acts upon the soul; it acts upon the flesh as well. People get hurt. It is not a warm and fuzzy welcome mat.
Can music transcend some of the divisiveness and fear that the wall represents?
With the help of Bob Phillips, CEO of the Border Community Alliance, and Alma Cota de Yanez, of the Fundación del Empresario Sonorense, A.C., I contacted the U.S. Consulate in Nogales, Sonora, and was delighted to learn that they were interested in this idea of a bi-national concert with our band. Christina Almeida, Diplomacy Officer with the United States Consulate, immediately set up a date, October 17, 2013, and we began making plans.
I quickly called John Snavely, our conductor, and Tim Welch, Band President, and they enthusiastically said, “Yes, let’s do this!” The Teatro Auditorio de Nogales was reserved on the appointed date. We rehearsed in mid-September; band members quickly applied for passports. We rented a bus and van. Arrangements were made for a light supper for band members before the concert. We would reach out to the musicians in Mexico and invite them to our concert.
And then, the U.S. government shut down. On October 16, 2013. It was the sequester, and our concert debut was canceled. We were stopped in our tracks. Boom. End of story.
I was furious. Furious with the Republicans, the Democrats, the Tea Party, Obama, all of them. Profoundly discouraged, we licked our wounds for a few weeks, grumbling about the dysfunction of our government.
We lived through the closure of Federal offices and facilities. I wondered how Congress could allow this to happen.
Picking ourselves up, we scheduled another date, January 23, 2014. I crossed my fingers that the government could keep on task and act like grown-ups.
And then the light shined upon our band of merry music-makers.
Rescheduling a performance on January 23, 2014, we planned the band’s first international tour. In fact the seventy-four band members and guests that traveled to Nogales, Sonora was the largest group that the U.S. Consulate has sponsored, ever. As Dan Shearer, editor of the Green Valley News, stated:
“A bus full of musicians from Green Valley managed to do in two hours what it takes diplomats and politicians years to pull off: They reached across the border Thursday night and made a nation smile.”
Gazing out into the audience at the Teatro Auditorio de Nogales, the house looked like a sell-out. More than 800 people turned out for our concert. We played classic American jazz, a medley of Elvis Presley tunes, a Mexican march and even a sexy tango, with dancers performing some sensuous kicks and bends. I watched heads bobbing to the music, and people clapping in rhythm to our marches. There were shouts of “bravo,” and a couple of standing ovations.
Dr. John Snavely, our conductor, donned festive hats and jackets to match the music–a Russian fur hat for “Pictures at an Exhibition,” and a scarf glittering with sequins for the Elvis medley. Of course he wore a huge sombrero and colorful poncho for “Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass,” and the audience erupted in laughter and cheers. One patron laughingly told him afterwards that he was wearing the sombrero backwards. But no matter. This was a cultural love-fest, and both the band and audience reveled in the light-hearted fun.
Honored with the presence of Mayor Ramon Guzman of Nogales, Sonora, Chad Cummins, U.S. Consulate General, and Alejandro Encinas, Director of Imfoculta (Cultural Center), as well as Arizona State Senator, Andrea Dalessandro, the VIP section of the auditorium was well represented with borderland stars.
This event was community organizing at its best. Several non-profit organizations in both Mexico and the U.S. worked together to transport the band, reserve the theater, gather enough chairs for band members, feed seventy-four hungry musicians after a long rehearsal, carry instruments and music stands back and forth from bus to stage, and deliver the group safely through checkpoints and customs officials. Many band members were dubious and nervous about traveling into Nogales for this musical adventure, but were delighted with the teamwork and camaraderie of our Mexican brothers and sisters. There were smiles all around.
So we’ll be back, Nogales!
And the Green Valley Concert Band accomplished this miracle of music with very little cash. The U.S. Consulate granted the band a modest stipend to defray the cost of the bus plus a few miscellaneous expenses. It doesn’t cost much to share good music and good will. Barriers were torn down in China with a ping-pong game. Leonard Bernstein helped crumble the Berlin Wall with his “Ode to Joy” and Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. And the Green Valley Concert Band brought smiles and a few nostalgic tears to a crowded theater playing “Heartbreak Hotel” and the “Zacatecas March.”
Our own government could take a lesson from all of this. Billions of dollars do not build friendships and trust. Sharing artistic and cultural dreams succeed where walls and guns fail.
Viva La Banda de Valle Verde!
Special thanks to Alma Cota de Yanez (FESAC), Bob Phillips (Border Community Alliance), Christina Almeida (U.S. Consulate), Tim Welch (Green Valley Concert Band President), Bill and Sue Krinke (Green Valley Band Managers), and the many organizations in Mexico responsible for the food, the security, the movement across the border, and the hospitality at the theater.
Please direct your comments and thoughts to Peg Bowden in the “Comments” section of the blog. I can also be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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The Green Valley/Sahuarita Samaritans is a non-profit organization whose mission is to prevent deaths in the desert. Information and contributions can be directed to: www.gvsamaritans.org
The Green Valley Concert Band is an all volunteer community band that stages some of the best band music in southern Arizona. Their website is: www.greenvalleyconcertband.org
Kino Border Initiative directs the activities of the comedor in Nogales, Mexico. The mission is to help create a just, humane immigration policy between the United States and Mexico. Their website is: www.kinoborderinitiative.org
The Border Community Alliance is an exciting new organization in southern Arizona focusing on the economic, cultural and humanitarian needs of the Arizona borderlands. Non-profit status is pending. Contact Bob Phillips at: email@example.com for more information.