La Flauta Que Canta

Art, the USA, and Mexico

A few months ago I spoke at a UNESCO conference about art and the US-Mexico border. I really wanted to share my speech with you, so here it is below! I hope you enjoy it.
I was very lucky growing up in Oakland – indeed, I have been very lucky all my life. That’s not to say that I haven’t encountered difficulties and barriers along the way but when I have encountered them I have been able to use them as learning experiences and have benefited from them.
My parents both came to the USA as two year olds and they insisted that my brother, sister and I always speak English at home and also made sure that we always went to good schools. I begged for a flute when I was eight years old and eventually got a second-hand flute for Christmas. My father was an amateur saxophonist and took me to hear many of the great jazz musicians and I was incredibly lucky to spend a large part of my teenage years at the House of Woodwinds where the owner, George Koregelos, not only encouraged me and introduced me to all the great flute players who came through the Bay Area but was a mentor throughout my life.  He was, in fact, my musical dad.
I was eighteen years old before I was able to have private lessons but the Oakland Schools system at that time was really wonderful and I never cease to give thanks for the US Tax Dollars which made my musical education possible. I was also very fortunate to find my own “Mr Holland” at Skyline High School in the form of Richard Adams who was our truly inspiring Head of Music.
Another part of my luck was in having “Tita”, Soledad Muñoz, my grandmother, who refused to speak English once she had acquired her American citizenship. I had to speak Spanish with Tita and in addition to that, every Friday night she took me to the Star Cinema to see the Mexican Movies: two films plus newsreels from Mexico and the Mariachis as well. Friday Nights were my idea of Heaven! Little did I know that years later I would have the pleasure of counting the great Manuel Esperon as a friend and the privilege of working with him in his last years – he who wrote the scores for more than five hundred movies and more than nine hundred songs!
Growing up I had two quite distinct lives and two different sets of friends – my Mexican friends (we all had the same God-Parents) and my American friends, especially those in the school band. I learned at a very early age that there were significant advantages to each and I was lucky to have the opportunity of benefiting from both. However, one thing I will say is that I never, ever looked for an advantage as a minority and always insisted on winning any perceived advantage on merit. But what I did learn at a very young age was gratitude for my education and pride in my Mexican heritage.
After a year at Mills College, I was appointed Lecturer in Flute at Stanford University, a position I held for two years before accepting Jean Pierre Rampal’s advice to go and complete my studies in Europe, where I ended up staying for thirty years! I had many wonderful experiences, studying with some of the great flute players, working with many wonderful colleagues, playing and recording with incredible artists and orchestras – and gradually finding out who I really am as a person, a musician and as an artist. I also learned that everyone must be true to themselves and not try and emulate others in their field, however successful. There would only ever be one Jean Pierre Rampal, one Jasha Heifetz or one Arthur Rubinstein – but that doesn’t in any way invalidate oneself – as long as one is true to oneself.
Although I had grown up in California I had never been to Mexico until I came at Christmas 1976 on a week-long package holiday with Michael Emmerson, whom I later married. I already knew several Mexican Flute players including Mtro Ruben Islas and from this time Ruben would bring young Mexican flautists to study at my summer Flute Courses in Stratford-upon-Avon. This resulted in regular invitations to go to Mexico to teach and to give classes and during the late seventies and eighties I would go regularly and during this time met and gave classes to a whole generation of talented young people.
When Michael stepped down from his job as the Global President of Classics for RCA/BMG in New York he suggested that we go and live in Mexico for a year since, he said, “My heart belongs in Stratford and if you knew it well, maybe your heart would truly belong to Mexico.” He was right! We went for a year and stayed for five, living in San Angel a village in the South of Mexico City and during this time I gave a lot of concerts, organised an annual Flute Festival at UNAM, held open house every Saturday where flautists would come and I would give classes and everybody would play. It was a very special time. In 1995, however, we felt the need to return to Stratford to be close to Michael’s parents and spent eight years “keeping an eye” on them. At the same time I taught at the Birmingham Conservatoire and we developed my Stratford Flute Course into a major International Flute Festival.
At the beginning of the new century, my wonderful parents-in-law had passed, my Festival felt as if it had outlived its usefulness and we decided that it was time to return to Mexico once again. By this time the Mexican law regarding citizenship had changed and I had been able to receive my Mexican citizenship without renouncing my American. So finally, I could live in Mexico as a full Mexican citizen! I guess not so many Mexicans actually chose to leave the country in which they were born to return to the land of their parents. Although I have lived for significant periods of time on both the West Coast and the East Coast of America, in Germany and in England and have toured and played on every continent, for me it has truly been a home-coming
I always felt that I could be a kind of bridge between the three races (the Americans, the Mexicans and the Mexican Americans). I first of all gravitated to popular Mexican Music since with this I felt I could communicate to a much wider public, then I began to spend a significant amount of time in and around the Border and finally I began my FLAUTA SIN FRONTERAS out-reach program in which I take music to people who cannot normally attend concerts: the young, the old, the infirm, the disabled and those in prison. To me it truly doesn’t matter whether I am playing to ten thousand in the Auditorio Nacional or to a group a twenty young offenders in a Juvenile Correction Center in Oaxaca.
Musically I had always been drawn to the music of the movies and I discovered that whilst many of the songs were deeply loved by the public they were almost totally neglected by classically trained musicians who, by and large felt (and sadly many still feel!) that this music is beneath them. I found that by taking popular songs and turning each one into a miniature gem I could appeal to a much wider and more diverse public. And there is something else, too: no one sings these songs as well as the great Pedro Infante, Jorge Negrete, Javier Solis or José Alfredo Jiménez – but when I play them on the flute, it reawakens the memory of the original without challenging it. Each person in the audience can bring their own memories and their own “recuerdos” to the song – and those who are hearing them for the first time are often ‘blown away’ by the beauty and the intensity of each song. Incidentally, Manuel Esperón was truly a classical musician and had he not inadvertently found his way into the movies I believe he would have left a very different legacy, not so different to that of Manuel M. Ponce!
So far I have put together four programs: MÉXICO DE MI CORAZON devoted to the songs made famous by Jorge Negrete, Pedro Infante and Javier Solis, “Los Tres Gallos”; AMORCITO CORAZÓN featuring songs by Manuel Esperón; ELLA Y EL REY featuring the songs of José Alfredo Jiménez; and, especially for Pedro Infante’s Centenary PEDRO MI AMOR. In each of these programs I feature clips from the great movies of the Epoca de Oro de Cine Mexicano which adds another dimension to the experience.
I was first introduced to playing in jails by Mexico City’s Secretary of Culture and I found a huge need – so much so that I try to make an annual tour of the jails of Mexico City. I also try and play in the local jail whenever I give a concert in other parts of the Republic. I have played in many of the jails in the State of Puebla and in some very heavy-duty jails like El Hongo near Mexicali. I never leave without feeling that I have a left a little piece of my spirit behind. Last December the Mexican Consulates in Los Angeles and San Diego arranged for me to play in a number of jails in both of those cities and it was interesting to see some of the differences between the two systems. The most obvious is that in Mexican jails almost all of the inmates can have visitors and families often visit regularly – in the American jails, when an inmate a has a visitor they can only communicate through a window. Even mothers cannot hug their children which, coming up to Christmas, was an especially great hardship.
In one jail for women I was instructed not to give the prisoners a hug at the end of my concert but this did not stop me from greeting every single person in the audience and if someone wanted a hug no one had said that they couldn’t hug me – and there were a lot of hugs!
I have so far made two journeys along the US-Mexico Border and I hope to make a third. I played on both sides of the Border for young and old, disabled, disadvantaged, battered wives, homeless and orphans. I learned that there are about twenty million people living along the Border, on either side, ninety percent of whom are of Mexican heritage. They are truly a third race and whilst they live in an area that both Washington and Mexico City see as a problem – it isn’t they who are the problem, it is what passes though the Border – in both directions – which is the problem, not the people who live there!
The truth is that there is much more that should unite us than divide us. We are lucky to live in this part of the earth called North America and this piece of land will be all the more fertile and productive if we learn to be neighborly, understanding and benefit from it together. My grandad Tito always reminded me when I was growing up in Oakland that California was really Mexico – and I once met a great philosopher, Thomas Ibarra, who grew up in Texas and whose forebears could remember the Mexican flag being lowered and the American flag being raised. We are all individuals with an entitlement to live in peace and prosperity in these countries of ours – the political borders and boundaries are transitory at best and whilst they exist they have to be respected – but we will all be the better for understanding and respecting each other’s culture and heritage.
As a dual national I can legitimately cry “¡Que Vive la Raza!”

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