Human migration can be traced back 1.75 million years, dating to when homo erectus left Africa and crossed Eurasia. By 40,000 BCE, humans had migrated from Africa and settled in Australia, Asia and Europe, leaving behind changing climate and infertile soil.
Today, migration and immigration are a hot-button issue in American politics. According to National Public Radio (NPR), immigration policy has been a leading issue in national politics for the past few years, including the 2016 presidential election.
Thor Steingraber, executive director of California State University, Northridge’s Younes and Soraya Nazarian Center for the Performing Arts, handpicked performances to explore the topics of migration and immigration under The Soraya’s Music Knows No Borders series.
“[Migration and immigration] are clearly timely issues,” Steingraber said. “They are issues that are playing out in real time in American politics and policy, so I think that’s the obvious answer, but I think it’s particularly relevant to our community in Los Angeles and here at CSUN, especially when considering the number of DACA students and Dreamers here.”
The series kicked off on Jan. 21 with Leilah Broukhim’s Dejando Huellas (Traces), a flamenco piece which shares Broukhim’s personal experience of her Persian and Jewish heritage.
The Soraya hosted three more performances surrounding the topics, including a piece by Step Afrika! titled Migration: Reflections on Jacob Lawrence, which tells the story of African-American families in the early 1900s who migrate to the urban North to escape sharecropping and poverty in the rural South; and a piece by Dublin Irish Dance called Stepping Out, which follows a bygone generation that crossed the Atlantic to escape famine in Ireland, lured by the promise of the American Dream.
The sold-out Cruzar la Cara de la Luna (Spanish for crossing the face of the moon) by Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlan was also part of the performances handpicked by The Soraya staff to address topics of migration and immigration. Cruzar la Cara de la Luna is a mariachi opera about three generations of two families with one border that divides them.
The Mariachi Vargas performance had 58 special guests: CSUN Dreamers in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival program and activist Dolores Huerta, who joined students and their families at the performance.
Steingraber introduced labor leader and civil rights activist Huerta, the Dreamers and their families to the full house, the Los Angeles Times reported.
“One of the things that was really interesting about Cruzar la Cara de la Luna was that even though it’s very specifically a Mexican immigration story, many people in the lobby who were not Mexican told me that it told their story,” Steingraber said. “And that can be [the case for] immigrants from anywhere.”
The remarks made by audience members highlight the series’ theme that Music Knows No Borders.
In honor of Black History Month, the series will conclude on Thursday, March 29 at 8 p.m. with a performance by five-time Grammy-winning opera singer Kathleen Battle. Her piece, Kathleen Battle: Underground Railroad — A Spiritual Journey, will feature numerous well-known spirituals, gospel and traditional pieces.
Oscar-nominated actress Angela Bassett will be narrating the performance, The Soraya announced on March 14. CSUN student ticket prices are $12. Faculty and staff get 20 percent off. Tickets may be purchased at the ticket office of The Soraya.
“Kathleen Battle is an American treasure and we are delighted to present the Los Angeles premiere of her extraordinary piece honoring the legacy of the Underground Railroad,” Steingraber said.
“The plight of people escaping slavery in this country is an indelible part of our history. This chapter of human migration — the journey of determined individuals seeking new opportunity or the plight of those tragically displaced — is as relevant a matter today as any time in history. The addition of Angela Bassett will connect another powerful female voice to this momentous performance,” he added.
Kathleen Battle: Underground Railroad—A Spiritual Journey is a program of music inspired by the journey to freedom along the Underground Railroad, the 19th-century network of safe houses that allowed African-Americans to escape from slavery.
Battle said that this performance has a deep significance for her because of the overlap in different aspects of her identity.
“Spirituals have the power to uplift and to heal, and we certainly need that in today’s world,” Battle said. “This is a program which brings together my musical background and my cultural heritage.”
Steingraber is proud of the work he and The Soraya staff have done with this series, particularly because these “five performances really show five different facets of human immigration and migration,” he said.
“The beauty of music is that it doesn’t acknowledge the borders at all,” Steingraber said. “That is really, to me, ultimately what Music Knows No Borders means. It means that in many ways borders are just a concept that is manmade.
“You can play a song on one side of the border and play that song on the other side of the border, and it’s the same song and in many ways has the same effect — the same emotional effect and the border is irrelevant.”