Contraband and Betrayal

Beginning with the Mexican War of Independence and  reaching its height during The Mexican Revolution, the corrido, or ballad, flourished throughout Mexico because of it’s lyrical and musical simplicity, appropriate for oral transmission. It was mainly used as a propaganda tool and corrido sheets were passed out to eulogize leaders, armies, left-wing political movements, and to denounce the opposition. Since its inception, it has always been a folklorist tradition to represent subversive peoples like oppressed workers, immigrants, and activists, and in the 60’s it was used in the United States to mobilize Mexican and Mexican American farmworkers in California.  Simultaneously, a new wave began to represent drug growers and traffickers, called narcocorridos, which also changed gender roles when the first female protagonist emerged from famous Mexican group, Los Tigeres Del Norte. The song, Contrabando y Traicion, (Camelia la Tejana) depicts the myth of a tough female and her partner, Emilio Varela, trafficking through Tijuana and smuggling marijuana inside the tires of a car and being stopped in San Clemente by immigration authorities. After fooling the authorities, they drop off the merchandise in Los Angeles in a dark alley. Emilio tells her that he is leaving to San Francisco with his cut and the woman he loves, which Camelia then murders him in cold blood and disappears.

Because of its popularity, two more corridos were written to eulogize the iconic myth, Ya Encontraron a Camelia, and El Hijo de Camelia, and now an opera has been written about this cultural heritage that represents the darkness and underground subcultures that exist on both sides of the border. I saw the U.S. premiere last Sunday at the Long Beach Opera, and it is only showing one more evening this Saturday, March 30th at 8:00pm. It starts with a scene depicting Ciudad Juarez as plagued by drug trafficking and a constant flow of illegal immigration, and the chorus singing about a poor and drunken fool who commits suicide by beheading himself on a train track. It continues with an exploration of the song’s impact on modern culture, a woman who claims to be the protagonist of the corrido, and a blogger who theorizes about Camelia’s character and drug trafficking habits. It concludes with the legendary corrido being sung in a cappella by the infamous Camelia la Tejana, which was absolutely stunning.

The composer, Gabriela Ortiz from Mexico City, who holds a Ph.D. in electroacoustic music composition from The City University of London, is one of the most vibrant musicians in the international scene.  Her music combines avant-garde, folk, and jazz, and she currently teaches composition at the Mexican University in Mexico City. The libretto was compiled by her brother, Ruben Ortiz Torres, who studied at the Academy of San Carlos in Mexico City, then at Calarts in Valencia, California. His arts includes: painting, photography, installations, video, and film, and he is a tenured professor at UC San Diego.


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