After Trump, an Oratorio About ‘Dreamers’ Changes Key

After Trump, an Oratorio About ‘Dreamers’ Changes Key


Originally published by The New York Times

A few months ago, the composer Jimmy López came to the University of California, Berkeley, to hear firsthand the experiences of young undocumented immigrants who were brought to the United States as children. He was hoping to talk to students as he prepared to create “Dreamer,” an oratorio designed to reflect the inspiration that fuels the experience of immigrants, and the challenges they face.

No one showed up that day. The morning of his visit, word spread that a parked U.S. Customs and Border Protection vehicle had been spotted on campus.

It may have been the first time that the composition of an oratorio — the kind of grand choral work Bach, Handel and Haydn are all famous for — was interrupted by an appearance of the border patrol.

But this is no ordinary oratorio.

The world has changed, and the immigration issue has become more urgent since the piece, with music by Mr. López and a libretto by the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Nilo Cruz, was first conceived a couple of years ago by Cal Performances, the university’s performing arts presenter. After President Trump was elected, he moved to end the Obama-era programthat shields nearly 700,000 young immigrants, often called “Dreamers,” from deportation, leaving them in limbo while his administration, Congress and the courts debate their fates.

“There was nothing on the horizon when we began that would indicate what we were going to be facing,” Mr. López said in an interview, explaining that the rapidly changing immigration landscape had forced him to reconsider his concept for the piece.

As it turned out, the immigration officials who had come to campus that day earlier this year were there to discuss a program that speeds security checks at airports. But the fears their vehicle sparked underscored how anxious a time this is for undocumented students.


A Berkeley student shows an image on her phone of instructions that undocumented immigrants are sharing about how to respond to immigration officials if approached. CreditTalia Herman for The New York Times

There have been a series of widely publicized raids nearby, and a Berkeley student, Luis Mora, was detained for nearly three weeks this winter after he was picked up in Southern California for having an expired visa.

The anxiety had hardly faded earlier this month when a group of Berkeley students, including undocumented ones in the now-endangered program — Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA — gathered here to speak with Mr. López and Mr. Cruz, who previously teamed up on the 2015 opera “Bel Canto.”

At one point, the pair heard from a 32-year-old graduate student who asked not to be named because she feared publicizing her undocumented status.

She told them how the slogan “Undocumented, Unafraid, Unapologetic” had once come to sum up how many immigrants felt. “The spirit of that,” she said, “as sort of coming out of the shadows, no longer being afraid, no longer having to feel shame.”

“Now,” she said, “it’s like: ‘Undocumented, Unapologetic, a Bit Afraid.”

Another graduate student, Ernesto Gutiérrez, 25, said he hoped immigrants would be given a voice by the oratorio, a roughly 40-minute work that will be performed here next year by the soprano Ana María Martínez, a chorus and Esa-Pekka Salonen conducting the Philharmonia Orchestra of London.

“I think this could put a face to the issue, without putting anyone in danger,” Mr. Gutiérrez said. “It would be a really good way to express our stories, express our fears, our feelings of anxiety and insecurity without actually having to worry about the federal government coming after me, or finding ways to intimidate me or other activists.”


Mr. López and Mr. Cruz previously collaborated on the 2015 opera “Bel Canto,” at the Lyric Opera of Chicago.CreditTodd Rosenberg/Lyric Opera of Chicago

Cal Performances presents some of classical music’s biggest names; in recent years it has drawn the Vienna Philharmonic and Gustavo Dudamel conducting the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela, and next month will present the Seattle Symphony performing John Luther Adams’s eagerly anticipated “Become Desert.” But it also embraces a spirit of adventure, and works hard to strengthen ties to the campus and the community: From the early days of “Dreamer,” it envisioned a role for undocumented students to help shape the piece and to observe its creation.

Matías Tarnopolsky, its executive and artistic director, said the context for the new oratorio looks very different now than when it was commissioned. “It was this really important issue that looked like it was going to have a happy ending,” he recalled, “but very quickly didn’t.”

Several hundred undocumented students are enrolled at Berkeley and get support through the university’s Undocumented Students Program. Janet Napolitano, who as secretary of Homeland Security under President Obama signed the policy memo that created DACA, is now the president of the University of California system and filed one of the lawsuits that seeks to preserve the program.

Mr. López, who earned his Ph.D. from the university in 2012, said he initially considered calling the piece “Sanctuary City,” inspired by Berkeley’s long history as a sanctuary city, which began when it passed a resolution to protect opponents of the Vietnam War. But, he said, he had been especially drawn by the Dreamers.

“They really represent the epitome of why the immigration laws in this country are broken,” he said. “They are in limbo, caught in between, through no fault of their own: brought by their parents at an early age when they were unable to make their own decisions, and then growing up in a country to which they don’t entirely belong, legally speaking.”

The students said they feared what would happen if the program is ended. But they also continued to worry about relatives and friends who had never qualified for it in the first place.


In late 2017, protestors gathered in support of the young immigrants often called “Dreamers.”CreditAl Drago for The New York Times

Paola Mora, 22, said in an interview that she had been grateful when the program allowed her to visit her ailing grandmother in Guadalajara last June, just a few months before she died — but saddened that her mother could not accompany her to say goodbye to her own mother.

“I think it came with a lot of guilt.” she said. “Why was I the one to be able to have seen my grandma?”

Her friend, Kris Ordoñez, 21, told Mr. López and Mr. Cruz that she hoped the oratorio would not focus too narrowly on the Dreamers and ignore others who did not qualify for the temporary protections offered by DACA.

Mr. Cruz sought to reassure her. “I like the resonance of the word ‘dreamer,’ ” he said. “I think it’s a bigger word.”

“We’re telling this particular kind of story, but we are telling other stories as well,” he said, likening it to one of his recent plays, “Sotto Voce,” about a ship of Jewish refugees that left Nazi Germany in 1939, only to be turned back by Cuba. Audiences, he said, tended to see it not just as piece about the past, but also as a commentary on the present.

Ms. Mora said that she hoped the oratorio would be able to communicate things that words cannot, and added that she had been excited to learn that it would be sung by Ms. Martínez, whose voice she had heard in the Amazon series “Mozart in the Jungle.”

Mr. Cruz, for his part, said that he was trying to tune out the daily news developments surrounding DACA and trying to focus on the human stories at its heart. (That day, soon after the meeting between Mr. López and Mr. Cruz and the students, the Trump administration announced that it was suing the state of California over its so-called sanctuary laws.)

“What stays with me,” Mr. Cruz said as the meeting ended, “is the concept of fear.”

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