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Sweet Honey in the Rocks
Unicamente la Verdad

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Program Notes

Contrabando y Traición / Smuggling and Betrayal
¡Unicamente la Verdad! /Only the Truth!

Smuggling and betrayal?  Myth, fiction, and reality? 

A famous corrido story, Contrabando y Traición (Smuggling and Betrayal) goes as follows:A woman and a man, one Camelia “la Tejana” (a woman from Texas) and Emilio Varela head north from San Isidro, Mexico, with a load of marijuana in their tires.  Though the immigration authorities stop them, they manage to pass through the border and deliver their goods.  As the story goes, they meet again to split their money, at which point Emilio tells Camelia that he intends to leave her for another woman “who owns my life.”  Camelia takes a pistol and shoots seven bullets, killing Emilio and disappearing forever with the money. 

Though a fictional account and unlike other corridos where the woman suffers deceit and betrayal in silence, this tale of Camelia sparked the ‘border imagination’ as a strong woman who speaks and acts for herself.  Bandit, outlaw, and outcast, she disappears into the social fabric and then surprisingly begins to take on new forms.

That this kind of outlaw or wild ‘cowboy’ power could become embodied in a female character was something relatively new.  Angel Gonzáles composed the lyrics and music of corrido Contrabando y Traición around 1970.  Members of the corrido band Los Tigres del Norte were in their twenties when they produced this song several years later.  It became wildly popular as one of their signature songs, made them instantly famous, and spawned at least two sequels and a new sub-genre of the narco-corrido.  Movie dramatizations and parodies soon followed.  As this and other narcocorridos grew in popularity and influence, newspapers, both tabloid and serious, claimed to document various ‘sightings’ of ‘the’ Camelia la Tejana.  In various guises and situations, different actual women professed to be, perhaps because of the character’s fictional notoriety, the ‘real’ Camelia.

Though inspired by the corrido of Camelia la Tejana, the videopera’s libretto, as conceptualized by Rubén Ortiz-Torres, sets events that take place sometime after the recording of Contrabando y traición.  Starting from a real-life story, the libretto is a compilation of texts from several news pieces about the return of the real Camelia “la Tejana”, such as, for example, the border-crossing story first posted in the Mexican tabloid El Alarma (claiming to publish “Only the Truth!”).  Other accounts are drawn from the respected Mexican newspaper La Jornada, from two interviews on TV Azteca, and related sources.  Many of these accounts claim to reconstruct Camelia’s  “true” or “real-life” story of trafficking marijuana and becoming a murderer for love, each with different outcomes and varying ties to one Emilio Varela.

Fact and fiction get mixed up and fuel popular participation and revisions.  Can fiction be truer than fact, or reach a layer of truth that the usual facts don't make accessible?  Most of all, how can narratives of fact and fiction, expressed in artistic forms such as corrido and opera, carry, organize, interact with, and transform values of the popular consciousness?  In its processes of documenting, inventing, and mixing, the videopera also explores different ways that individuals (Camelia and Emilio) are seen by others – the readers of El Alarma or other news accounts, the onlookers of a suicide, a television audience, or social groups over time.  Camelia becomes both public and personal.

The Ortiz dramatic concept weds opera, music video, tabloid journalism, analytical documentary, and popular Mexican music, in a new expressive musical and visual language.  In Gabriela Ortiz’s compositional imagination, and as it filters through the layers of collaboration with the other artists leading to tonight’s premiere by the Contemporary Vocal Ensemble, Camelia’s story becomes richer and more complex.  In Gabriela Ortiz's musical voice, the story unfolds in both individual and collective dimensions.

¡Unicamente la Verdad! weaves together these truths and legends, their facts and fictions, ever seeking and transforming “Only the Truth!”.

Marianne Kielian-Gilbert


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