In Search of the Fandango
Fandango for Butterflies (and Coyotes)
February 6 – March 28, 2020
New York City
Playwright Andrea Thome spent a weekend in May 2019 at my home in San Diego—a rare visit from an old friend. I usually have to go back to NYC to see this talented, generous human being. San Diego, my home these last three years, is on the border with Mexico and only minutes away from the famous Friendship Park, a federal park at the fence that divides the countries at the Pacific coast line. Andrea was here to attend the annual Fandango Fronterizo, where musicians and dancers from both sides of the border gather at the park to celebrate and share their music. It is a symbolic event that builds community by acknowledging the ties that bind us and expressing them with verse and zapateado, a fancy footwork that is danced atop a raised wooden platform called a tarima. The tarima is about eight inches high and has holes on its sides that allow it to vibrate and amplify the sound revealing every detail of the intricate zapateado. This particular fandango draws in artists from all over Mexico, the United States, and, I can confidently say, the world.
Many years ago, in NYC, I co-founded a Mexican dance company, a company that is still going strong and has engendered several other dance troupes that are flourishing throughout the NYC Tri-State area. I choreographed dances to son jarocho—the style of music that is predominantly represented at fandangos—so, I was not about to miss an opportunity to attend a real fandango. I was ready to show off my mad zapateado skills. But in reality, I was about to be schooled on what they are all about—what they really do, and what they truly mean.
On the morning of the fandango, we got up early, picked up more friends who had traveled across the country for the event, and, after searching around for the best Mexican breakfast San Diego has to offer, drove down to the border. The park is closed to cars; however, we parked in a crowded dirt lot right outside the entrance. We saw the border fence looming to our left, in front of us desert and marsh, and over a hill, the ocean. We walked toward the ocean along with several people carrying musical instruments—jaranas, cajones, and the heavy tarimas. The trek was almost an hour long. Those people were not just going to perform or be entertained; this was a ritual, a procession of people that know the power these fandangos have.
From the beach we climbed up to the entrance of the park, where a large gate was guarded by the border patrol. Most agents were friendly and welcomed us in; one did not want to engage. Whatever. We should be happy, we realized—in the past, they have denied entrance to the area where you can stand next to the fence and reach through to hold the hand of your friend on the other side. This morning, they let us in, but now there was a heavy metal mesh on the fence, and we could barely see each other’s eyes. Nonetheless, there were people already playing music and making speeches and singing verses. We were in the midst of Mexico creating live art with the United States. One culture, two countries. One music. One people. We were in heaven.
Andrea’s entire life has been about the navigation between cultures and languages, and this exchange ignites her creativity. Andrea is an expert at observing human behavior and writing plays about it. As the head and champion of a playwright exchange program between Mexico and the US at The Lark, she listens, nurtures, and amplifies Mexican artists’ voices. I’ve worked with her over ten years identifying and facilitating the translation of Mexican plays into English and creating a community of artists that has now borne much fruit. So, it wasn’t surprising that Andrea was down here beside me in the midst of the Fandango Fronterizo. And suddenly she was meeting a friend who was playing and singing on the Mexican side of the wall.
“Sinuhé!” she screamed through the fence. I excitedly screamed, “Sinuhé Padilla Isunza is in Tijuana!” You see, he is also my friend and was the Musical Director of my dance company in NYC way back when.
And now, he is collaborating with Andrea on a new theater piece for En Garde Arts called Fandango for Butterflies (and Coyotes) that will open at La Mama in early February before continuing its five-borough tour through March.
Sinuhé, for his part, is a fierce artist with a heart of gold—a composer, a researcher and perpetual student of Mexican traditions, music, and rituals. When I first met Sinuhé, he had just arrived in NYC via Spain where he spent four years based in Madrid searching for the lineage of the fandango, following the threads that made up the tapestry of the form. These threads led to Portugal, Morocco, the Middle East, the Bantú of Central Africa, the Romani, as well into the extensive Arabic and Catholic influences in Spain. Now with the roots uncovered, he began to interrogate the social purpose of these fandangos, their genesis, their evolution. And, most certainly, like the evolution of a language, this current version of fandango was a product of migration, slavery, and some forbidden shadows of religions.
A traditional fandango jarocho, from the Mexican state of Veracruz, is a celebration where people from all the communities in the area gather to share stories, play music, and sing verses, following a set of specific rules but finding the freedom within them—as if it were jazz—to incorporate the individual experiences and tastes of those around the tarima. The Fandango Fronterizo at the Tijuana/San Diego border does the same thing; however, it is especially poignant and passionate today because of the immigration crisis we are living through. The quality of the music, the urgency of the verses, the large number of participants is unprecedented.
Andrea’s initial commission from En Garde Arts was to write a documentary piece on folks that are undocumented. She has done this before; all of her writing is about migration in one form or another. She wanted to build this project in a way that more people would see the truth in front of them, a way to stop the invisibilization of a community. “…so, it would be a beautiful thing if audiences could feel a sense of connection to their larger community,” as she put it. “Or if they are not aware of their community, they learn about it and their shared responsibility… so, in a sense, break down barriers that can lead to action, to reaching out, to…whatever it means to them.”
Andrea went about interviewing people, attending gatherings—believing that this time, because of the current US administration’s dehumanization of Mexicans and immigrants, a general audience would be ready to see how strong and vibrant the undocumented community is, despite being depicted in the media mostly for its fear and suffering.
Andrea wanted to focus on how people are incredibly resilient, the elegant beauty of how people find a way to negotiate life—a sort of metamorphosis, a constant reinvention. “To emigrate is a radical act of imagination,” she says. Fandangos in the United States are also spaces of listening and creating something together. Thus, a reimagination of their place.
Andrea, Sinuhé, and their many collaborators have created, in their play Fandango for Butterflies (and Coyotes), a performance in which migration and the experience of those that have moved around the world brings light and strength to whatever communities they are in. And I expect they will create a space that dissipates the fear of the unknown, because the fear of those that are different to us has always inhibited progress and civilization.
The play, whose characters and stories are inspired by the real people interviewed, follows the characters as they gather one evening, to create a space of community and solidarity while they're being persecuted outside. Their relationships, dreams, and strengths all come alive onstage, including through songs, and it ends in a fandango.
My favorite line in one of Sinuhé’s songs reads: Cuando la mata toca aquel concreto tan duro y seco, viaja por donde puede y crece y crece por allá dentro… It speaks to the resilience of a seed landing on hard concrete and making its way into unwelcoming spaces to grow, thrive, and create beauty; to give shade and fruit to its new home. How can we not see that? It is time.
“The act of falling in love requires an act of seeing. There is a lot of invisibilization. People are completely unaware that the entire society is full of, and operates with, folks that are undocumented,” states Andrea. “We immigrants from Latin America are such a huge part of the United States’s history, and people still don’t see us. It is uncanny, this invisibilization.”
Imagine finding a NYC thread in that long, beautiful fandango tapestry. Represent!