Borders are generally meant to separate and divide.
But on a recent Saturday, under the bright Baja California sun, the border brought people together, as dozens of American and Mexican musicians, dancers and spectators gathered alongside the towering barrier between San Diego and Tijuana.
There in Friendship Park, an area where friends and families on both sides of the border can congregate and communicate with an 18-foot metal fence between them, the crowd converged for Fandango Fronterizo, a country-crossing, communal celebration of dance and music. What began as a local event now draws participants from all over the United States and Mexico, including musicians from Los Angeles and Long Beach. There are fandangos held in solidarity on the same day in other cities, some as far away as Europe.
The soundtrack to the festivities is son jarocho, a traditional form of music from Veracruz, Mexico, whose frenetic strums many would recognize as the backbone of 1950s rocker Ritchie Valens’ iconic hit, “La Bamba.” Son jarocho incorporates Spanish, African and indigenous influences, and the musicians around the wall strummed on jaranas, eight-stringed guitar-like instruments, and thumped the four-stringed requinto, providing a melodic bassline. Others added percussive instruments, like the eight-sided padero tambourine, and the quijada, a donkey jawbone scraped with a stick, or slapped to make the loose teeth rattle. The anchor of the fandango is the tarima, a low, wooden platform on which participants stomp out the beat while dancing in hard-soled shoes. For this particular performance, two tarimas were placed back to back on either side of the border fence, creating one large fandango that transcended the physical barrier.
It is lively and upbeat music, lending itself more to communal participation than a formal concert. “It’s not ‘stage music,’” says Adrian Florido, an NPR reporter, journalist and one of the organizers of this annual event. “It’s a music that’s shared.”
When it began eight years ago, says Jorge Castillo, one of the original Fandango Fronterizo founders, it was a solution to a practical problem, a way to bring together groups of son jarocho musicians who couldn’t or didn’t want to cross the border. Castillo had friends in Mexico who couldn’t travel north because they lacked documents, and friends in America who were fearful of the narco-violence then plaguing Tijuana. The solution was to meet at the border, which was then nothing more than a glorified chain-link fence. “Back in the day, the holes were bigger,” says Roxana Guajardo, a Spanish teacher originally from La Paz in Baja, who now lives in Santa Ana. “It wasn't so difficult to communicate; you could almost put your hand through.”
Today, Friendship Park is one of only a few designated spots on the border for people to see and speak with friends and relatives on the other side. The U.S. side somewhat resembles a prison yard, while the Mexican side is painted with colorful murals, featuring a lighthouse, an observation deck and Boundary Monument #258, an obelisk emblazoned with the phrase “Limite de la Republica Mexicana.” Every Saturday and Sunday, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., a set of secondary gates is opened on the U.S. side, allowing pedestrians access to the fence itself. Under the watchful eye of a handful of Border Patrol agents, the fandango takes place during this brief window. “When it started, it was more about preserving a cultural tradition, not so political,” Castillo says. “It still is, but just the fact of being in front of the fence makes it political.”
Despite the political implications of the border, there was a conscious effort to avoid focusing on current divisive rhetoric by certain presidential hopefuls. “When they were inviting people to this event, there was no mention of any of that [Trump’s wall],” said Chuy Sandoval, who plays in Cambalache, a son jarocho group from East Los Angeles. “We try to not bring any negativity. We come in here to see each other, to have solidarity with our fandango community across the border.”
While recent attendees may see the expansion of the border wall as a political issue, Florido says, organizers leave it up to the attendees to draw their own conclusions. “As a committee we are trying to let people imbue it with their own meaning,” he says. “Over the years, the fence has gotten thicker and wider. For some people, it’s explicitly political. For others, they think of it as a beautiful, symbolic thing.
Fandangos generally last until the group decides it’s time to end. At sundown, another festive fandango began on the Tijuana side, featuring streamers hung from the obelisk and copious helpings of tamales, pozole and agua fresca to fortify the participants. After all, it was Saturday night, and the beachside tourist strip buzzed with clubs, and restaurants offered seafood and micheladas to foreigners and locals alike. Women in brightly colored skirts vigorously stomped out a rhythm on the tarima as an assortment of stringed-instrument players strummed in unison. A woman with an infant in a rebozo and a requinto slung on her back stepped up on the tarima, effortlessly dancing and twirling as her child bounced along. On the beach, couples posed for photographs. Beyond them, the border fence extended into the ocean, stopping a few hundred feet out, just past the breakers.