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Migration Music

 March 20, 2019 at 2:56 AM PDT

The change is stark and immediate. People crossing from Tijuana to San Diego for the first time notice the differences between the two countries right away. Clip 1 Francisco [16:12 - 16:43] Francisco: the infrastructure is much more, a larger cleaner, uh, will lead and it's just the amount of cars and it just, the infrastructure automatically hits you visually right away you see the difference. That’s Francisco Peralta Vargas, an undocumented college student who crossed for the first time when he was 12. Of course, it’s way more than just the freeways that are different. The language, the people, the food, the culture -- just about everything takes an adjustment. And for the thousands of migrants who make the trek and cross into the United States every year, on top of all the enormous day-to-day challenges that come with starting a new life in a new country, a barrage of emotions comes at them fast and hard. And especially for the kids who cross -- legally or not -- those emotions can be intense. Here’s Francisco again, remembering the fear he felt when he crossed into San Diego for the first time. Clip 2Francisco [14:10 - 14:26] Francisco: once I started getting closer I, like, my heart was pumping and I was a scared and I was rehearsing how to say I'm a US citizen because that was the only word that the only few words in English that I needed to learn. I’m Alan Lilienthal, and you’re listening to Only Here, a KPBS podcast about the place where San Diego and Tijuana meet. Today, a story about a new classical music composition that explores what immigration feels like for kids. Song clip Only here is the symphony bringing together a composer and a poet to make music about a kid crossing the border. More after the break. Clip 5 Music [00 - 1:09] That’s a bit of “Brazos de niebla,” or “Arms of Mist.” It’s the song that the San Diego Symphony Orchestra commissioned Mexican composer Javier Álvarez and former United States Poet Laureate Juan Felipe Herrera to create. The song in its finished form is about an hour long. But it started as a super short, succinct poem by Juan. He wrote it before family separations at the border started making the news. And before the huge central american migrant caravan made its way to Tijuana, and all the chaos at the border that followed. Juan says he would have written about those big topics had they been happening at the time. But instead, he sat down and thought about the best way to get people to understand what immigration is like for the people who do it. Clip 6 Symphonypoet [10:10 - 10:35] Juan: I come from a generation of writers so that, I'm very concerned with social change and the issues of migrant peoples and uh, issues at large that we all face as human beings. Not only in California but throughout the nation and throughout the world, as much as I can, you know, I'm really, uh, writing into just about a few things, but if I can find the heart, that's the key. Finding the heart, or the human-side of immigration wasn’t too hard. Juan says his brain zeroed in on an imaginary young undocumented child who migrated to the U.S. with his family. To give this imaginary child a voice, he drew on his own experience growing up with migrant parents from Mexico who moved to San Diego. Juan lived in Ramona before he and his family moved to Logan Heights, a neighborhood near downtown San Diego. He says they moved around in San Diego a lot after that, continuing to live the kind of migrant lifestyle his parents were used to. He had to constantly adjust to new schools, new neighborhoods and new friends. It was tough. Some of the first words Juan wrote down ended up being the title of the poem: soy el niño perdido, I am the lost child. The words that spilled onto the page after that conveyed a real sense of feeling lost and alone. The world is indifferent to the child -- it ignores the child. Clip 7 symphonypoet [06:00 - 8:13] Juan reads the poem in spanish and english: Okay. So this is what I wrote for the San Diego Symphony, the composer, great composer of the, of the symphonic piece. h, incorporated into, into music. [reads poem] Uh, so, but uh, diesel, uh, I am the last child. So either would you assess FADE under narration:Doris between furious towers and for those one data between two flags. Last everleigh arms of Miss Nevada. There was scummy area, green moon. I search for my land, disco, DJ, grape cutter in the fire. I dance in the mode, my songs in between my toes, Cook, cucumber picker. Nobody knows. Come to me with my arms up at night. Got Old cars, got no papers, nothing goes back. I serve naked in dreams, sort of fail this. Noodle and swingers handcuffs and screams as to us for everything up to visa. I am the last child, bunch of year hip hop, San Diego, the mother of my mother deported. So they'll another. I am the son of nothingness. Lavando plateaus. Wash dishes with the rags of hope can better answer. Serve donuts, ctvs sugar and midnight a soup. Curry Media Jay still here and fight for via key moodle's Illusia. Vito. I am the last child in three, four years. Doris, between furious towers. Instead, those of data between two flags, but also then the eveleigh arms of Miss Luna, Aveda. They will commit the era. Green Moon. I seek my land. Once Juan finished the poem, Mexican composer Javier Álvarez wrapped the text into a three-part musical composition for the San Diego Symphony. Music clip of boy singing The song isn’t sad. It’s actually pretty lively and energetic in parts…. And slower and more touching in others. Javier decided the poem should be sung by a young soprano boy. He wanted that clear, crystalline voice to convey a sense of innocence as soft orchestral music played behind it. [Clip 9: Music clip of boy singing] Music is a powerful way to get to people’s emotions. Of course, Javier knows that. One of the emotions he decided to scratch at -- is loneliness. Here’s Javier: Clip 10 Symphonycall1 [12:43 - 13:19] javier: It sort of helps to convey this feeling of nothingness of, of, uh, of, uh, of solitude, if you like, which is embedded in the poem. And uh, you know, judging by the reaction of the audiences in the past performances of the work. Uh, I could see that people were extremely move and, uh, and you many people came up to me and said how much they, they identified with what was being said and what was being kind of expressed in the power of the music. The composer also hoped the music might stir up some feelings of empathy for the confusion that meets kids who move to a new country. Clip 11 symphonycall1 [23:05 - 23:33] well perhaps, you know, in my humble and small place in the world, you know, , I aspire, you know, that bring awareness to or ever listens to it of what is going on and what goes on in the mind of a child having to go through an experience of. So, you know, going from one place to the other and having to immigrate because of diverse reasons. So yes, I aspire to that. Music clip OK, it’s break time. When we come back, Martha Gilmer, CEO of the symphony, explains why her organization wanted to make music about immigration. She says it wasn’t about plopping the symphony in the middle of the raging border debate. Instead, it was about making music that matters. Stay tuned. Music clip ad Everyone is talking about immigration. Arguing about it, really. It’s hard not to think about the issue when just about every news cycle leads with a story about a new Trump administration policy, a migrant caravan or a new border wall. [Clip 14: KPBS news clips] But despite the optics of tackling such a contentious topic in a time when the country is so sharply divided on the issue, the symphony’s ceo Martha Gilmer says the organization’s decision to commission an original composition about immigration wasn’t about making a statement for or against it. Clip 15 Martha1 [06:25 - 7:68] Martha: well, i’ve said to people that this is not intended to be a political piece so you can see it that way of course, and the timing and that's why it's important to see how it evolved because the topic has become heated and political. But the fact is is migration is generations old. It's a. people have been going from place to place. America was founded on that. And what I see this as, as a human piece, it's, it's through the eyes of a child is so the eyes of someone displaced who's both trying to climatize and understand the new as well as letting go of the old, you know, reminiscing about what there was, but also finding himself in the present. And so this kind of juxtaposition between two worlds is what migration is. And to me, that's what the piece speaks to and you know, the, the piece itself is quite, it's lively and it reflects this vibrant culture and the culture of Mexico with viwhalays or four whaler players in the piece, uh, guitars from the Mariachi style. Um, so it's, it has its exuberance. It's not a, it's not mournful, there's, there's that. While there's a wistfulness, um, to me, it did not speak. It was not intended or did not speak to an outcry or a political statement. It's a human statement, [Clip 16 Symphony music clip. Applause] This isn’t the first time the symphony has taken on the topic of immigration. In early 2018, 58 percussionists and two piccolo players stood on both sides of the border, at the spot where the fence runs into the ocean. Now, I just want to take a few quick moments to tell you a little bit more about this place since, over the years, it’s been the stage for dozens of symbolic events like the symphony’s concert. If you’ve never been there, just picture a beach with a big fence slicing it right down the middle and running straight into the ocean. On one side of the fence, the United States. On the other, Mexico. On the U.S. side, it’s almost always quiet and empty. Birds are often the only thing you’ll see frolicking on the beach near the border fence. There’s a park a few hundred feet back from the beach on the U.S. side. It’s called Friendship Park but it feels anything but friendly. Instead, it’s militarized. There’s a watch tower and border agents and it’s almost always empty, in part, because it’s hard to get to because of the border infrastructure and a road that often floods. The U.S. side lies in stark contrast to the Mexican side, which is almost always filled with activity and people. There’s tons of art on the Mexican side. Lots of vendors selling cocos, elotes and cotton candy. It’s alive. I live just a few minutes from here. I love coming here to walk around, get some tacos or just people watch. Beach audio from Alan. Some of the only times people actually show up on the U.S. side of the border here where the fence runs into the Pacific Ocean is for protest events meant to highlight the two countries’ separation and connection. It makes a stunning and unusual backdrop for these things. There’ve been kite-flying events where people on both sides fly their kites over the fence. Binational yoga sessions have happened here, there’ve even been weddings, and a binational church meets here regularly. One time, years ago as part of an art event, a man was shot in a cannon from the Mexican side to the U.S. side. It was probably the most memorable instance of protest art at the border. And there’s long been a tradition of binational concerts here, too, where musicians on both sides of the border play music together. The San Diego Symphony Orchestra’s performance at the border fence last year carried on that tradition. They performed a huge outdoor percussion piece written by famous composer John Luther Adams. And a quick note to listeners, you really had to be at the border to get the full experience of this piece. Here’s a recorded version of the song since the only audio we could get from the symphony’s event wasn’t great. Clip 17 Inusksuit clip Martha says that piece wasn’t meant to be a political statement for or against immigration either. She says it was more about simply acknowledging the fact that a cross-border connection and flow exists between San Diego and Tijuana already. It’s here. It’s happening. Every single day thousands of people, ideas and products cross our border. We live in a border town. Martha says its important that the symphony that exists here recognizes that, and uses it as an occasional subject matter. Clip 18 Martha1 [08:26 - 9:40] And so we did that piece and again, it was a human piece of it was about the fact that you cannot stop sound and just be on both sides of the border and enjoy this piece coming from all around you was, I was on the Mexican side of the border and it was, um, there was a party going on, you know, those people were in the park there where they come on Saturdays. And there were, there were food vendors and um, and then in the middle of it, there were these musicians and people were kind of in wonder of what this was about. It was, it was surprising. Um, and so I think that it's important in San Diego that we acknowledge our surroundings, where we live. You know, music reflects the time it's created in the place. And so to reflect the fact that we are part of a larger region which happens to have a border through it is important to our orchestra. Political or not, the symphony can’t help how people interpret a piece of music, or how it makes them feel or react. At the border fence that day, one audience member, a border patrol agent whose job is to watch the fence and make sure no one tries to cross -- he told martha that the music moved him, and made him think about things differently for a few moments. Clip 19 Martha1 [09:51 - 10:08] one of the border patrol who was there at the time said, you know, I didn't know what to expect today and I thought all of these percussionist. But what I realized is that the border, we often focus on our differences. And today we focused on our similarities. He said, “it was beautiful. I did not want it to end.” Clip 20 Inusksuit clip Next episode teaser Next time on the podcast, a story about celebrating death as a way of keeping culture alive. Show clip Only here will you find a San Diego community working hard at reconnecting with traditions on the other side of the border. Show credits Only Here is a KPBS podcast hosted by me Alan Lilienthal. It was written and produced by Kinsee Morlan. Emily Jankowski is the technical producer. Lisa Morrissette is operations manager and John Decker is the director of programming. Sarah Anderson is our student assistant. For info about the music you heard in the podcast, go to slash podcasts and click on “Only Here.” KPBS podcasts are made possible by listeners like you. Help us keep you connected to these cross-border stories. Go to kpbs DOT org to make a donation or become a member today. Thank you.

Leaving one country for another isn't easy. The transition can be challenging and emotional. And especially for the kids who cross, legally or not, those emotions can be intense. In this episode, we dissect a new classical music composition commissioned by the San Diego Symphony that explores what immigration feels like for kids. We also drop by the place where the border fence runs into the Pacific Ocean. The symphony has organized performances on both sides of the border here. It's a place with long history of serving as a backdrop for music and art focused on the border and immigration. Only here is the symphony bringing together a composer and a poet to make music about kids crossing borders.