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Fandango Fronterizo music sharing event helps mends fences at US-Mexican border

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Image from the annual musical celebration known as Fandango Fronterizo at the border fence between the San Diego in the U.S. and Tijuana, Mexico.
Adrian Florido/KPCC
Image from the annual musical celebration known as Fandango Fronterizo at the border fence between the San Diego in the U.S. and Tijuana, Mexico.

A fandango is a traditional music circle where musicians swap sounds and verses. But when a border fence divides the circle in two, Fandango Fronterizo is born.

Not much can get across the U.S.-Mexico border fence these days, but every year at Friendship Park, a security zone between San Diego and Tijuana, music is heard coming over the thick metal fence.

The event is called Fandango Fronterizo, in which musicians, some trekking up from Tijuana and some down from San Diego, meet at the border with instruments and start strumming in the son jarocho style. 

"Son jarocho is a style of traditional music, and traditionally it isn’t performed, it’s actually played in what’s called a fandango," said Adrian Florido, who used to report for KPCC and now works for NPR's Code Switch. "And that’s when a bunch of musicians bring their instruments and gather around this wooden platform called a tarima, and they strum and they sing verses. So it’s really important to be around this tarima, so you can hear and respond to your fellow musicians."

Florido, who is a co-organizer of Fandango Fronterizo, joined The Frame in studio to explain how the event began and how political trends make the event increasingly harder to put on.

Interview Highlights

What started it, and how has it evolved over the years?

Back in 2008, a friend of mine named Jorge Castillo, who lives in Tijuana, he got frustrated because he had friends who lived in both Tijuana and San Diego, but not all of his friends could cross the border, so they couldn’t have a fandango together. So one day, he was at a beach clean-up in San Diego, right by the fence. And he saw people - because back then, the holes were big enough so you could literally buy, like, a popsicle through the fence, pay the vendor on the Tijuana side, and he’d hand you the popsicle. He saw that and he said ‘Oh, this is a great place for a fandango!’

Describe the fence - can you see through it, can you hear through it?

The fence is a very tall, thick fence. It didn’t used to be that. So, yes, you can see and hear through it, but with sort of some difficulty. When this event first started, it was a lot easier to do that, but as the fence has gotten taller and thicker, it’s made it more difficult to see our fellow musicians and hear them through the fence. 

So the obvious thing you’re trying to preserve is the spontaneous nature of the fandango, but you’re having to deal with permits, musicians are having to lug their instruments, what, a mile to get to this venue - So how do you preserve the spirit of the fandango when you’re dealing with the logistics of the venue itself?

Well, you know the spirit of the fandango has changed a lot, I think, in the last nine years that it’s been happening. As the border has sort of taken on a much more central role in our politics, for a lot of people I think the fandango has come to represent a political statement, a kind of resistance. And I think that, in many ways, no matter what your opinion is about the border, you can’t go to this space and play music with friends across the border, or see people doing this, and not just, sort of, be moved by this human experience that that represents, by the humanity of it. 

I think one of my favorite moments in the years that I’ve been organizing it, was maybe two or three years ago, when we started strumming, and the music began, there was this border patrol agent, who had been kind of rough and a little bit rude to us as we were setting up. As soon as the music started, I looked over and he pulled out his iPhone and had started recording, and it was really - it said a lot to me about the power of the music, and the power of taking it across the border.

Hypothetically, this is a place where Donald Trump would want to build a wall. Not a fence, not where you can hear music through it. Going forward, what are the issues and obstacles facing this, and can you see it continuing in the years ahead?

I mean, we’ve already seen, as this site, Friendship Park, has become more heavily policed, it’s already become more difficult to have the event there. In part, because, as the border has gotten taller and thicker, it's literally changed the way that sound travels through the fence. It often makes it difficult for the music on both sides to stay in sync. So that's sort of one practical thing.

Another is that, like last year, for example, we almost had to cancel because, sort of at the last minute, the border patrol called me and said, "hey, we’re concerned that you could be smuggling drugs or some other contraband inside your instruments." And so we had to convince them like ‘Hey, we’re musicians, we’re not smugglers.' So overcoming those has become a growing challenge. And so we hope that we’ll continue to have it as long as we need to have it, as long as the border is there.

The border divides a lot of people, and it divides a lot of families. Is it ever the case that families are reunited musically across the border? That a family that’s divided geographically can be reunited musically across this fence?

Every year we invite musicians from Veracruz to come to the event. And one of the musicians we invited actually two years ago was a man named Camerino Utrera who is a master musician from a very small, rural town in southern Veracruz. And five years ago, six years ago now, his son left that town, crossed the border and settled in Milwaukee where he's working as an undocumented worker in a kitchen. We were able to bring Camerino. His daughter-in-law also came, because she plays this music too, with her newborn baby, so Camerino met his grandson at the Fandango Fronterizo for the first time.

So this is largely a very celebratory event, but at the end of this year's gathering, there was some counting, in Spanish, from 1 to 43, what was the significance of that number?

So 43 is the number of students from the rural college in Ayotzinapa who disappeared. Many Mexicans won't accept that they're dead until there's sort of absolute proof, right? And so, there's still this idea that these students are missing, and they are. Sort of the trauma of that event looms heavily, I think, over a lot of Mexican families. And that sort of just happened spontaneously, someone in the fandango, at the very end, just as we were starting to usher people out, because the border patrol makes us leave by 2 o'clock, just started counting to 43, and it was actually a really powerful, really powerful moment.

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