By Matt Eichner, Jenn Erdely and Cheryl Gardner
EL PASO – The sweet mustiness of incense fills the air of a sharp-cornered hallway in a repurposed building adjacent to downtown El Paso as we follow Adria Del Valle, one member of the border-based Esteromance, into the trio’s studio. The incense precedes the canine crew, including Picasso, Pancho and La Reina as Paulina Reza opens the door with a welcoming smile. Adria later confirms that the presence of these beloved canine companions are part of their collaborative writing process. We are escorted by the pack into a cozy, pillow-lined space reminiscent of their video, “Live at the Big Blue.” Although the two leads reiterate their music is open for interpretation, we are enveloped by the warmth imbued in this space.
This same personae was present as we joined Anabel Guiterrez, Jesús Güereca and Michael Nelson, members of Frontera Bugalú. We joined them following the May release of their EP, “Humanidad.”
This humility, openness, and care is in the culture of the border. These elements traverse, intersect and infuse the wall of steel fence spanning roughly 2,000 miles along the US-Mexico border. The color of rust, the wall of fence appears like a series of tuning forks with its narrow spokes reverberating the culture of this region. The movement of sound rebels obstinately against the policies, politics, and razor wire seeking to divide this community. Michael, percussionist and ethnomusicologist for Frontera Bugalú, reminds us this community was a path and a passage for thousands of years before a fence was erected. Concrete sound barrier walls are embossed with mountains and line another border wall, Interstate 10. Flimsy metal signs forbidding animals and pedestrians staccato this shoulderless stretch of highway. Also competing against the whirring of cars are orange pixelated letters on a digital TXDOT highway sign warning of pedestrians crossing hovering over us. The interstate serves as both literal and figurative concrete division puncturing a community.
The work of these artists penetrates any attempts to mute the culture of this community. Anabel is part of a collective committed to women artisans in Aghaa’ Hat Company earning fair wages for their craft as hat and ceramic bead-making. Michael works for a non-profit committed to helping children with STEM education. Adria and Jesús are both involved in immigration – Adria works to process immigration paperwork, while Jesús, an attorney, represents children who are detained and housed in shelters because of their immigration status. “Nobody leaves their country willingly,” Jesús says. A children’s coloring book peeks out of the top of a cream-colored tote bag sitting on Jesús’s desk. The conga drum he played earlier is against the wall, reminding us of the relationship between these worlds.
After our interview with Jesús at Diocesan Migrant & Refugee Services, we followed him to a small room next to his office. The room contained a round table, mop bucket, and a stack of posters and wall hangings. Next to a ladder, he pulled an innocuous-looking frame from the stack as he explained this was made for Día de los Muertos, or the Day of the Dead. The holiday sets aside time to honor the lives of those who have passed before. Adults are celebrated on November 2 and it is believed the souls of children visit their parents on November 1. Carefully framed and matted were the photographs, names, birth and death dates of seven children who died in the custody of the United States. A cross, in black and white, is in the center of the frame. Jesús looks at their faces as he places the frame on the table standing it up so we can see it. His hand stabilizes the frame as his eyes well up. We look and are reminded of this fleeting news story. For the first time in the day, silence befell the group. Attempts at small talk were made as we filed out of the small room. Jesús followed us carrying the frame and he paused graciously as we thanked him for his time. He cradled the frame against his torso with the children’s faces looking up at him and wiped the glass of the dust that accumulated like a doting tío wiping the crumbs from the mouth of a niece or nephew.
This story was produced as part of the 2023 Dow Jones News Fund Multimedia Training Academy hosted at UT El Paso. The academy trains college and university journalism professors from Hispanic-serving institutions and Historically Black Colleges and Universities in media creation and editing to help them prepare their students for multimedia career opportunities.