A Multimedia Migrant Experience

Spoken word, songs, sadness and humor infuse Border Ballad, a work-in-progress by Ruben Martinez

By Tim Miller
Published on LatinoLA: June 28, 2000

A Multimedia Migrant Experience

When was the last time you heard the Johnny Cash classic "Folsom Prison Blues" sung in Spanish, described as "a kind of norteno-punk"? Or, for that matter, David Bowie's "Heroes" performed in a bolero-rock style or the Hank Williams classic "I'm So Lonesome (I Could Cry)" as a Mexican ranchera?
Poet, playwright and author Ruben Martinez presented these songs and more, accompanied by seminal post-punkers Los Illegals, in "Border Ballad," a multimedia work-in-progress staged at UCLA recently. It incorporates an interesting mix of songs, both new and adapted, including Martinez's own new piece "Allende" and "Wreck on the Road."
Martinez comes across as a preacher, storyteller and a gospel rocker to retell, as he calls it, the "soundtrack" of Mexican migrant life.
Moving and thought provoking - funny and sad - "Border Ballad" is a very interesting performance of music and spoken word, which helps the mind explore and understand the "new frontier" and what it means to all of us.
After the performance, I sent an email to Ruben:
"Well, I have had good intentions with each email you sent about your work-in-progress 'Border Ballad,' but [it] never worked out with my schedule. TODAY...I finally saw it and I was very impressed! It is both moving and thought provoking. A wonderful mix of humor, music and spoken word.
My neighborhood is a wonderful mix of cultures and people. I have heard stories [which are] similar to your tale from some of my friends from Mexico and other parts south who are 'visiting the U.S.' [Like] the guy at the laundry who has left his family (wife and two kids) to make more money here. He works two jobs at a low wage, but makes more than he would back home. He has been home once in six months and says he might make a quick trip home in October. You know the story. He is doing it for them and so his wife does not have to work.
I take the bus and meet many, many guys and some women who are 'visiting.' They have made it to - as you say -'the other side.' Yet each time they go home, they risk getting caught. Yet it is a chance that they take time and time again.
I noticed that Joseph Rodriguez of 'Eastside Stories' fame did the photography as well. Excellent shots of people - each telling yet another untold story.
Ruben and the others: 'Border Ballad' tells a story many people should hear, as it might make them think twice about people they come in contact with everyday, many of whom they do not give the time of day - which is so sad.
A job well done guys!"
This is an email from Ruben back to me:
"Thanks very much for coming out to UCLA to see the show and for your kind comments regarding the performance. I do hope to continue developing the show and eventually tour it.
Just as you say, I want as many people, from as varied backgrounds as possible, to see it, that they might get the stories behind the superficial way that migrants are portrayed in the media. Or just [to] get the story behind the migrants they come into superficial contact with on a daily basis-- clearing the plates off their tables at restaurants, washing the dishes, keeping their lawns trim, working the assembly plants, etc. etc.
You are obviously very aware of the Mexican presence here and have taken the time to get to know people - would that more people had your open heart. What I really hope to do with the piece is to get it out to people who haven't had the kind of contact you've had, and to the migrants themselves.
Over the two years that I've been developing the piece, I have had the opportunity to perform (on a solo basis, without the band, which is a recent addition to the show) before some interesting audiences. I did a short tour of the UK with some snippets of the show... Glasgow, London, Brighton, etc., and they 'got' it.
And [I] also had the wonderful experience of presenting before mostly Mexican audiences as well.
The experience there is altogether distinct of course, but it's worked in that context as well. So thanks again for your interest and support, which is very much appreciated. I will definitely keep you posted on future engagements."

About Tim Miller:
Rub?Martinez is currently at Harvard University doing a residency with performer Anna Deavere called "Institute on the Arts and Civic Dialogue." continuing to develop "Border Ballad."

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