By Inside México Original Print Publication: June, 2008
Playing on the border is a lifetime project. It’s about perception. It’s about acceptance. It’s about having the spirit to go for something more.
- Elena Duran
Elena Duran grew up speaking “Spanglish” in her family’s East Oakland, California home. She attended Oakland’s public schools and then Mills College. From there she went on to become one of the world’s great flautists, studying with the likes of James Galway. Her British husband, Michael Emerson, a former president of RCA Records, is also her manager. The couple relocated to Mexico City and has developed a program called “Flautas sin Fronteras (Flutes without Borders).” The idea won the support of both countries’ governments and has been promoted by the Mexican Foreign Ministry, the US Embassy in Mexico, and the (US) President’s Committee for Arts and Culture. Elena describes her program of concerts on both sides of the Mexican-American border as a “lifetime project.” Inside México sat down with Elena and Michael to talk about this program, the border, and identity.
Elena Duran and Michael Emerson
Inside México: How did Flautas sin Fronteras get started?
Elena Duran: We were in a nice hotel in Coahuila. I said, ‘I’m sick about the bad news about the border.’ And Michael said, ‘Why don’t you do something about it?’
Michael Emerson: So we decided that we would do concerts along the border.
Elena: We go where people are living and dying. We’ve played in orphanages, in old age homes, in schools, concert halls, and even a bank in Eagle Pass. At the bank, we were concerned that we weren’t going to play for the people we wanted to play for, but it was a marvelous group that included community organizers and people who don’t usually go into a bank.
When I played at a university in Brownsville, the American consul from Matamoros and the Mexican consul from Brownsville were both there. It was the first time they’d been together. I thought, ‘Why am I in this university?’ Well, it’s a place where Americans and Mexicans could come together.
Michael: What we discovered was that neither Washington nor Mexico City understands the frontera. It’s a third nationality. First of all you have to recognize that this third country exists. The drug runners and the immigrants are just moving through it.
Elena: Not every family aspires to cross the border. Where I’m going [in this project, in her music, and as a person] is more about borders. Economic, political, psychological.
I’ve never said I was American. Always Mexican-American. Hyphenated. I’ve always been a brown definition. I’m a Chicana. Some say that’s too militant sounding. But when I’m [on the border], I’m just Lupita eating her palomitas with her grandmother in Oakland.
Michael: The first time Elena came to Mexico was for Christmas in 1976. Both her parents were born in Mexico, but left when they were two. We were invited to Christmas with a Mexican musician friend.
Elena: It was really luck to have Christmas with him but it wasn’t a real Mexican Christmas like we had back in Oakland. It was more European. [When people left Mexico] they took with them the customs and treasured those things and kept them sacred. I know about the culture, the food, the music, the film. I feel more Mexican than Mexicans.
I hope that in 2010, when Mexico celebrates its 200th birthday, it will include recognition of chicanos and their contribution to the cultures of both countries. There should be a separate fund to support border culture that comes from both Mexico and the US, and recognizes the mythical land of the chicanos. We all have to work really hard [for this to happen].
Michael: We never expected [Flautas sin Fronteras] to be personally enriching, but it is.
Elena: We can all be who we want to be. That’s your choice.
To learn more about Flautas sin Fronteras and Elena Duran go to www.elenaduran.com.