When you think of opera, you probably think lavish productions, performed in major metropolitan areas. But in the city of Visalia, in rural Tulare County, a small opera company is taking on a big task. It’s brought opera and mariachi music together, to create an original work that explores the lives of the farm workers who came to the US as part of the bracero program.
Mariachi in many ways is the soundtrack to people’s lives in Central California, documenting stories of love, heartache and struggle. It’s played at celebrations of all sorts. But rarely is it heard in the world of opera, until now.
“When I hear mariachis, I feel very connected and rooted all of a sudden,” says Rosalinda Verde, a classically trained opera singer who runs the Visalia Opera Company.
She decided to fuse the two art forms into one production: a mariachi opera called El Bracero. It’s thought to be the second of its kind in the world.
“Opera is to tell a story through song and that’s what we’re doing,” Verde says. “We’re using traditional mariachi songs that people will know and recognize and that will bring them into the story.”
Verde grew up in Visalia and saw a rendition of the first mariachi opera earlier this year by Mexico City’s Mariachi Vargas called Cruzar La Cara de la Luna.
“I saw it in San Diego,” Verde recalls. “It was also an immigrant story, and at the end of it you could hear people bawling, crying so I thought ‘Wow, I want to do that actual opera but they are still performing it so I can’t get the rights to that.’”
So she says she had to write her own.
Set in the 1940s, El Bracero explores life in the bracero program, which opened the door for Mexican nationals to work temporarily in the U.S. The program started in 1942, during World War II, and ended in 1964.
Rosalinda’s father Francisco Verde narrates the opera, weaving storytelling through acting, folkloric dance and song.
“How many times have you heard opera being shared in the Mexican Heritage? Never,” Verde says. “The ballet folklorico has always been in existence but it’s going to come in with the mariachis and opera and acting.”
The opera is inspired by the story of Francisco Verde’s parents and also centers around the story of Noe Prado, who came to California as a bracero. The opera recounts how Prado struggles to make a living so he can support the love of his life in Mexico.
Prado’s daughter Noelvia plays herself in the production. She was pulled in last minute when the actor playing her got sick.
“Growing up, my dad always made it a very important part of our life to know our roots and what he came from,” Prado says.
Life wasn’t easy for the braceros. Many claim they were unfairly compensated, racially discriminated against, and that there was little federal enforcement of the rights they were promised.
“This is their story, including just the true hard labor of working in the fields,” Rosalinda Verde says. “All the promises that the U.S. had made did not turn out to be in a lot of the instances.”
El Bracero is funded through a grant from the Fresno Regional Foundation, and part of the requirements mandate the opera be performed in a nontraditional setting. The first opera was held last month in a park in Visalia. It’s a neighborhood known for homelessness and gang activity. Still, more than 300 people attended.
Retired Visalia Teacher Richard Rodriguez says the mariachi opera reminded him of his family history.
“All of a sudden it engulfs you,” said Rodriguez. “You don’t even know you’re experiencing this but you’re feeling something until you go back home. Oh my God, I just saw my momma and poppa’s story. I just saw an orchestra that happened to be a mariachi group and they were excellent.”
It’s responses like this that Rosalinda Verde is looking for. It’s her desire to link the medium of opera to the community she lives in.
“I feel like it’s a very good marriage, simply because we can,” she says. “We live in the Valley and we are open to creating new things here.”
Verde says El Bracero will be performed again in 2015, possibly in the Central California Community of Lindsay.