In Washington this week, the U.S. Senate tried to pass some type of immigration bill that the President would not veto. The seemingly non-stop fight is still largely about building that wall along the U.S.-Mexico border and what to do about the DACA-recipients — the Dreamers.
While the drama on Capitol Hill continues, a ripped-from-the-headlines opera about immigration hits the stage here in Southern California. It’s called “Cruzar la Cara de la Luna,” or “To Cross the Face of the Moon.”
If you stop to imagine what the face of the moon might be like, your mind probably conjures a harsh, dry landscape that’s as beautiful as it is barren. That is the desert that separates the U.S. from Mexico. And this opera is about a fictional Latino family divided by that patch of scorching sand.
We meet an old man named Laurentino at his modern-day home in Texas. On the verge of death, he’s surrounded by his Mexican-American family. In his younger days, he crossed the border from Mexico with a friend in search of work in America. And before his body and mind completely fail, he takes us on one last trip down memory lane, flashing back to happier times in his Mexican village.
Daniel Rodriguez plays Laurentino. Rodriguez says: “We’re forgetting sometimes that we are all immigrants. In the news, you see people who speak about immigration like they are above it.”
For the past few weeks, Rodriguez and his castmates have been rehearsing the opera at The Soraya, a beautiful, new performing arts center on the Cal State Northridge campus. What makes this opera special is that it’s believed to be the first time Mexican mariachi music takes center stage in this classically European art-form.
Jose "Pepe" Martinez Jr. is the musical director. Martinez is a member of Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlán, one of the oldest mariachi dynasties in Mexico — 120 years old to be exact. He’s stepping in for his late father, Jose "Pepe" Martinez Sr., who composed this opera about 10 years ago, based on a complete libretto written by Broadway director Leonard Foglia.
“I shared with him my idea at the time," Foglia says. "I wanted to explore the notion of ‘home.’ Where is ‘home’? When I was living in Mexico and here in the states, I saw how divided people were about where their home was — all these families that were split up.”
Several years later, Foglia points out that the story of immigration between our two countries continues both on and off the stage. It’s a sentiment echoed without hesitation for cast member Juan Mendoza.
“Hijole!” sighs Mendoza when asked about personal connections to the story. He plays Chucho, a friend who crosses the border with Laurentino.
Mendoza says many people will understand this story. In the opera, we learn that Chucho and Laurentino leave behind their wives and children. In real life, Mendoza faced the same tough choices. He's a well-known mariachi singer in Mexico, like his dad before him. That means lot of travel and time away from home.
One time, he says, he returned back to Mexico after a long stretch of traveling with his mariachi group, and his young son walked away from him. He didn’t recognize his own dad. That scared Mendoza. So, now the words he sings in the opera are filled with personal experience. That real life resonance is exactly what inspired librettist Foglia.
“I had to find my own way into it, you know, as a writer. I started thinking about my father,” explains Foglia. “The character of Laurentino is based very much on my father’s final days. My father was born in Italy and came here when he was 10 years old. We lived in the Italian area of Boston. When we moved, it was like ripping his roots out. Because there he spoke Italian all day, all his relatives were there and so his whole life he felt displaced. So I wanted to tell a more universal story about displacement.”
Foglia set part of the story near a monarch butterfly sanctuary in Mexico. He wanted to explore the metaphor of the monarchs who fly across man-made borders all the time.
Foglia says: “At nighttime, if there is a full-moon or at least a substantial moon, people can see the shadows of the butterflies crossing the face of the moon — and that’s really where the title came from.”
Foglia wants audiences to see themselves reflected onstage. In fact, this opera is the first in a trilogy of Mexican-American stories he’s developing.
This work was originally commissioned by Houston Grand Opera and has since played to packed houses from Phoenix to Paris. Here in Los Angeles, 15-members of the Mariachi Vargas will perform alongside an all-Californian cast.
For director Dan Guerrero, the time has come for telling more Latino stories like this.
“I tell the cast [that] we’re always glad to get a gig in our business, but sometimes it’s a gig that’s more than just a job. It’s something really special. This is important. Historic, actually.”
In the end, the Laurentino character passes away. And his son takes his ashes back home across the border.
Singer Suzanna Guzman, who plays Lupita — Chucho’s wife — says it ends just as it should.
“A butterfly has to fly!” says Guzman.
“Cruzar la Cara de la Luna” will be performed Feb. 16-18 at the Younes and Soraya Nazarian Center for the Performing Arts on the Cal State Northridge campus.