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‘Dreamers’ Showcases Experiences of Latinx Immigrants to U.S.

By Clara Longo de Freitas

When Berkeley, Calif., became the first sanctuary city in the United States in 1971, it was primarily to provide a safe haven for U.S. soldiers and sailors who were resisting the Vietnam War. But now, its status has expanded to protect undocumented immigrants, particularly those living in the state with Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) status, known as “dreamers.”

It was the city of Berkeley that inspired Peruvian-American composer Jimmy López and Cuban-American playwright Nilo Cruz to create “Dreamers,” a new musical work that was simulcast live at D.C.’s Sidney Harman Hall on March 17 in collaboration with Washington Performing Arts.

The concert was the focal point of a series of programs spearheaded by Washington Performing Arts to facilitate a multidisciplinary dialogue around the important contributions and experiences of Latinx immigrants in the United States.

“Dreamers,” features music by López and a libretto by Cruz. It was performed by the Philharmonia Orchestra under the direction of Esa-Pekka Salonen, with soprano soloist Ana María Martínez and a nearly 80-voice choir comprising Bay Area contemporary vocal ensemble Volti and the U.C. Berkeley Chamber Chorus.

Peruvian Composer Jimmy López
Peruvian-American composer Jimmy López wrote the music for “Dreamers,” a new musical work that was simulcast live at D.C.’s Sidney Harman Hall on March 17 in collaboration with Washington Performing Arts. Photo: Franciel Braga

López and Cruz said they created the work to convey the realities and emotions of undocumented immigrants, particularly in today’s heated political climate. That includes the roughly 700,000 dreamers who came to the U.S. as children and who have thus far been shielded from deportation under DACA. Today, however, these young people live in legal limbo as the administration, Congress and the courts wrestle over whether to keep DACA in place.

“When I found out that Berkeley was the first sanctuary city [in the United States], I decided to use my voice as a composer to underline and underscore an initiative that is very important to us today,” López said.

López obtained his doctorate degree in Berkeley in May 2012 and he, along with Cruz, used this connection with the university to conduct research on dreamers. The university, he said, is home to at least 500 undocumented students. López set up two rounds of private interviews, in January and March of 2018, where he asked the students to share their stories.

“It was a very emotional experience,” López recalled. “Some of them had not shared their experience before, and [all the stories] are very different from each other. It was very illuminating.”

After the research was finished, all the recordings were destroyed to protect the confidentiality of the students. Cruz then transformed the stories into “beautiful, poetic text” to create a work of art that would inspire empathy.

“My work as a composer is … to create an emotional frame with music for us to empathize with the story that is being told.” López said.

Peruvian Composer Jimmy López
Cuban-American playwright Nilo Cruz says his own heritage and experience as an immigrant inspired him during the creative process for “Dreamers.” Photo: Matt Pilsner

Cruz’s own heritage also influenced the creative process of the oratorio. As a child, Cruz and his family left Cuba in 1970 on a Freedom Flight, a program sponsored by the U.S. government to transport Cuban refugees to Miami.

López, who was born in Lima and became a U.S. citizen in January of this year, said his experience living abroad in Helsinki, Finland, helped him empathize with the plight and hardships of the dreamers.

“My experience and the dreamers’ are very, very different, but there are some things that I can relate to, especially when I was a child coming to the United States,” López said, referring to “the cultural shock, leaving friends and family … the sense of displacement and the sense of not belonging, of being different.”

Cruz said Berkeley is “very sympathetic to dreamers,” although he said the reaction in Washington, D.C., might be more mixed. His hope is that “Dreamers” will generate a discussion for those who don’t understand the realities of undocumented immigrants and provide an opportunity to view the contentious issue through a more nuanced lens.

Sparking a dialogue about Latinx immigrants to the U.S. is the goal of Washington Performing Arts (WPA) throughout its 2018-19 season.

When thinking about how it was going to present “Dreamers,” WPA “decided that we wanted to do a larger series of programming that [explores] Latinx immigrant identity,” Nicholas A. Brown, the director of special productions and initiatives for WPA, told the Diplomatic Pouch.

The project, called “The World in Our City: Latinx in DC,” is part of WPA’s global programming initiative and has been in motion since the fall of 2018.

“The ‘Dreamers’ work itself and the presentation was the first thing that came to fruition, and then we decided that the topic of immigration and dreamers needed a much deeper dive in order for our organization to do justice to it,” Brown said. “We have been really, really blown away by the dialogue that has been created at the events.”

The series of events takes a “multidisciplinary look at the different stories” of immigrants, Brown noted. These events range from art displays to book discussions, such as a March 5 book talk led by Lupita Reads at Politics & Prose Union Station.

“We [also recently] had a concert by Venezuelan artist Jonathan Acosta,” Brown said. “That brought into the discussion what has been going on in Venezuela at the moment and how that connects to the immigration debate in the U.S.”

On March 16, Brazilian singer-songwriter Cissa Paz performed at The LINE DC hotel. Paz’s music explores issues of migration, relocation and what it means to be someone from the Americas.

Upcoming events include a book discussion highlighting Francisco Cantú’s “The Line Becomes a River: Dispatches from the Borde” at the D.C. Public Library in Mt. Pleasant on April 30, and another discussion focusing on Reyna Grande’s book “Across A Hundred Mountains” on May 7.

WPA is partnering with Carlos Rosario International Public Charter School, GALA Hispanic Theatre and and the Latin American Youth Center, which has been a very “powerful” experience for the organization, Brown said.

Carlos Rosario is the first adult public charter school in the country, with a majority-Latinx student population. WPA has partnered with the school for art exhibits such as “Gateways/Portales” at the Anacostia Community Museum, and some of the charter students performed during the live simulcast of “Dreamers.”

“They used spoken word and theater pieces to convey their experiences and what they are feeling and going through as immigrants with different statuses,” Brown said.

WPA has also continued its long tradition of partnering with local embassies, hosting the panel discussion “Latinx Immigrant Stories & The Arts” at the Embassy of Peru on Feb. 27.

Since 1974, in fact, the organization has brought together dozens of embassies with DC Public Schools through its Embassy Adoption Program. Each year, fifth- and sixth-grade DCPS students learn a year-long global education curriculum and each class is paired with a country whose diplomats visit the students.

“It’s a really amazing program that gives the students the opportunity to learn about food, culture, language, social issues and political topics,” Brown said. “And one of the neat things about this program is that the schools all come together at the end of the year for a model U.N., in which they debate issues such as climate change from the perspective of the country that they studied.”

In a statement after the event, Dixon noted that “there were several songs such as ‘Shenandoah,’ ‘Over the Rainbow,’ ‘You Raise Me Up’ — and of course ‘Danny Boy’ — that struck a chord, and touched my heart due to their special significance to me at different times in my life. I felt he was singing just for me.” Before the final song, Kearns told the crowd, “We’re going to finish up with an Irish song — feel free to join in.” Those gathered in the ballroom for the event complied, belting out the chorus to close out the evening.


Mackenzie Weinger is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.



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