Responding to the Border Crisis in Song

These days, news from the U.S.-Mexico border is fraught with tension. Increased U.S. restrictions on asylum-seekers have left hundreds of migrants from Central America and elsewhere stranded on the Mexican side of the border, and relations between the two countries have been strained. In response, various cultural and human rights groups are reaching across the border to help stranded migrants and to reinforce the historic bonds between the two countries. Among them are a handful of choral music organizations, including two choral initiatives centered on the San Diego-Tijuana border region.

Both experiences called on participants to cross the U.S.-Mexico border in the interest of cultural understanding. Both used singing to express solidarity, find commonality, and grow friendships. One focused on performance, education, and sharing a wide variety of musical styles; the other used music as a tool for expression, to share stories and test the limits of what music can do to bring people together.

The International Festival Coralifornia, which took place last August in the Mexican cities of Tijuana, Tecate, and Ensenada, was organized by Dzaya Castillo, a soprano and choir director from Tijuana. The main idea of the festival is to create a bi-national community and heighten awareness of the border, Castillo says.

Through work last year in Tijuana, San Diego-based conductor Emilie Amrein has encountered a profound connection with migrant people seeking asylum—a result of the project she co-founded, Common Ground Voices/La Frontera.


Creating a Bi-national Community

 “We are not always conscious that we live in a border city, a border region,” Castillo says, “but that affects the lives of many people.” In all, 17 choirs from Baja California, San Diego, and the interior of the Mexican Republic participated in eight concerts during Festival Coralifornia. The five days of intense activity, described as “an open-air party,” included showcase concerts, master classes, and workshops. Following the European model for a music festival, singers and choir directors were free to choose from a variety of programs during the day. Choirs got a chance to perform for the whole assembly and the community in concerts each evening.

The San Diego Chorus of Sweet Adelines International was the only U.S. ensemble at the festival. Tenor Claudia Canon notes that San Diego and Tijuana are becoming “one big metro area.” She travels to Tijuana weekly, while some family members live there and work in San Diego. “It’s the most heavily trafficked border in the world, only 15 minutes from downtown,” she says. In addition to singing in the festival’s closing concert, the San Diego Chorus hosted two Mexican groups at a concert on the American side of the border. “The singers loved sharing time with one another and finding commonality through musical experiences,” says director Kathleen Hansen. “We sang together and listened to each other sing about the things that we all hold dear: freedom, love, joy, hope, and more.”

Canon found the festival exchange surprising. “I didn’t expect to find so much diversity among the singing groups,” she says. “There was lots of traditional choral music, that is, western, classical music, sung in Spanish. And there were really good young contemporary groups, like a group of young women from Chihuahua who were like a big ‘girl group’ with great stage presence.”

Festival Coralifornia director Dzaya Castillo (front row, second from left) joins three choruses on stage as they close one of the festival's concerts: Ensamble Ja´sit (front row, right) and Ensamble Vocal Redes 2025 (front row, left) from Mexico, and the San Diego Chorus of Sweet Adelines, International (rear). Photo credit: Armando Santibáñez, Centro de Artes Musicales


The contemporary aspect was especially important to Castillo. “We have to open the world to our young people and community, especially college students, music majors,” she says. “Here they saw another face of the choral world, not only traditional singing. We are not used to hearing pop music in the choral world. These choirs showed us and the public how it’s done.”

Castillo plans another Festival Coralifornia for this year and hopes more choirs will be involved—"especially more choirs from the United States,” she says. “I want more choirs to see how a performance can be so joyful. We will create a better community across the border.”

Amrein knows of only a few choral groups that are involved in cross-border exchanges: the San Diego Chorus, her own University of San Diego choirs, and, from Mexico, Ensamble Vocal Redes 2025 (Vocal Ensembles Network), the Coro de Selección (Select Choir) from Tijuana's Center for Musical Arts, and the Cenzotle Ensamble (Mockingbird Ensemble). Others that have reported recent ventures across the border include the One World Children’s Choir, based near San Diego, and the Credo Community Choir of Dallas, which sang in El Paso and Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, in January. 


Helping Migrant People Tell Their Stories

Helping to give Festival Coralifornia “a character reflective of the social reality and the issues of the border,” says Castillo, was a workshop presented by Amrein and her collaborator, André de Quadros. It demonstrated the method used in Common Ground Voices/La Frontera’s two-day community music encuentros (encounters) between choral musicians and forced migrants from Central America, along with some from West Africa. “These folks are living in shelters in Tijuana,” says Amrein. “They are profoundly marginalized.”  

Both Amrein and de Quadros use the expression “forced migration” very deliberately since, as Amrein points out, the migrants in Tijuana have not left their homes voluntarily. Encounters delve into this dynamic, along with identity, place, belonging, and shared humanity in an historically charged and contested part of the world. The first encounter, held in one of Tijuana’s migrant shelters, took place last October, with another scheduled for April. “We tried to create a social space for migrant people to process the experience of migration with story and song, in this particular geography,” says Amrein.

Amrein is associate professor of music at the University of San Diego (USD) and serves as conductor of the USD Concert Choir and Choral Scholars. De Quadros heads the Music Education Department at Boston University and directs choirs in Indonesia, Boston, and Sri Lanka. In 2018, in a residency in Germany, Amrein observed de Quadros’s work with people from Israel and Palestine, “where segregation, borders, and injustice are so prevalent,” he says. Amrein thought his process would resonate in the geography of her home city.

Teaming up with de Quadros, Amrein initiated Common Ground Voices/La Frontera, a bi-national community music project that seeks to build relationships and understanding across political, demographic, and perceptual borders as an exercise of non-violence. They set out to create what their website describes as “an intentional, international community through song.” The project got underway with a week-long residency for musicians, funded by USD and advertised via social media. They accepted 33 applicants: students, amateurs, and professionals, faculty members, PhDs, and conductors who traveled from across the U.S. and Mexico. Castillo was one of them; she has taken part in all the Common Ground Voices/La Frontera activities. 

Half the residency experience took place in San Diego and the other half in neighboring Tijuana. While the Americans traveled easily to Tijuana, seven or eight people from Mexico needed visas to cross the border to San Diego. USD provided a letter of invitation, but even so a few of them were refused visas by the government of the United States. They took part only in Tijuana.

In addition to community engagement activities, the group presented workshops and public performances of choral music by American and Mexican composers. These performances included an experiential aspect: narration, improvisation, and movement. The audiences for this musical theatre experience were diverse in both countries.

In the process, Amrein says, “we found commonality in sharing musical language,” but ensemble participants found themselves wanting more. They realized “a more profound encounter would mean moving beyond that commonality,” she says. So began the encuentros—shorter workshops that would draw the musicians into direct contact with asylum seekers and their families, their stories, and their painful reality.

“Migrants make up 50 percent of encounter participants,” Amrein says. “We engage in an improvisational mode. Activities allow forced migrants, in small groups of four or five, to tell their stories, and they want to tell them.” Some are stories of violence; some are graphic, frightening. They are gradually integrated into a performance, “a mini piece of choral musical theater,” Amrein says.


Learning the Limits of What Music Can Do

Singing has potential that has not been fully explored, de Quadros feels. “For over 60,000 years music has been used in many diverse ways, not only for contemplation and beauty. Music can do a lot. It’s up to us to experiment and see what it’s capable of.” At the same time, de Quadros notes that his and Amrein’s experience developing the encounters compelled them to understand “the powers and limitations of traditional choral music.” De Quadros observes that musicians are used to performing, not listening. Participants in the encounters are not performing, but singing and making music together, employing non-traditional elements such as contemplative practice, body movement, poetry, spoken word, and theater. “Our focus is on inter-connectedness,” Amrein says. “It can be joyful, playful, and touching. Our western tradition is not so inclusive.”

In the October encounters in Tijuana shelters, each small group, with a translator, told personal stories and shared about the questions and problems they encountered. Together they then built a musical theater scene or scenes. Some involved song, sculpted movement, or narration. Each group worked together to develop a musical performance—an informal expression that each group performed only for the others, not for the public.

 “The means of telling a story goes beyond lining up to sing like a choir,” Amrein says. The migrants’ stories empower the music making. Sometimes that means delving into folk traditions that can be quite complex. “Encounters explore collective memories and songs of their homelands, layered, multi-part harmonies upon melodies and familiar, commonly-known ostinatos,” Amrein explains. The technical vocabulary of singing is not what resonated with the participants; rather, connection came with finding a shared musical language.

She found that listening to the migrants sing can be transformative. She remembers Michaela, a woman from Haiti. “Hearing her singing in Haitian Creole, I understood that she took on power by using her voice in this way. When she is singing, she who has no conventional power has transcendent power. It puts us on common ground and the center of gravity shifts in a kind of de-centering.”

What Amrein has gained from her work with migrants is a more intimate, profound understanding of their plight. “I’m aware of the risks they have taken and their vulnerability. Making eye contact, shaking hands, sharing space with them changes my way of knowing the world. If we’ve had an impact on the lives of migrant partners it’s in providing an opening for their stories,” Amrein says. In January, she brought Alban Kams, an encounter participant, to a Chorus America Leadership Development Forum in San Diego. Describing the effects of months of being treated as an unwanted migrant everywhere he went, he told the group “sadness overwrites talent.” But he found the encounter process healing. “Common Ground Voices brought back my voice and my talent,” he said.

Through the migrants’ stories, adds de Quadros, musicians participating in the encounters may have begun to appreciate “the scale and nature of the catastrophe. I have hope that the understanding they have gained will impel them forward into activism.” Through the emotional experience of developing a relationship with migrants, employing choral music as one of the tools, “we are reminded to steady our gaze on this border crisis,” says Amrein. “These are now people we know, and we don’t want to go home and stop seeing them.”

Ann Hafften is a freelance writer and editor in Weatherford, Texas. For most her career she has worked as a journalist and communication specialist for agencies of the Lutheran church. She was U.S. coordinator for the World Council of Churches' Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel (EAPPI). Ann sings in the Master Chorale at Fort Worth’s Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.