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From The San Diego Union-Tribune, Friday, July 31, 1998:

INSIDE MEXICO

By Sandra Dibble

Down below, sirens blared, electric signs flickered, and thudding bass rhythms blasted from the bars along Avenida Revolucion. But high above the noise and bustle of Tijuana’s tourist district, a small gathering sat captivated by far gentler sounds earlier this month.

The voices of four Tijuana tenors rose and fell, alternately passionate and powerful, lilting and tender. Arias by Giuseppe Verdi, Giacomo Puccini, Gioacchino Rossini soared through the open windows into the warm night air.

Tijuana has all the trappings of a busy border town — traffic, dust, crime, noise, trash. But it also has its hidden gardens, its quietly eloquent voices, its surges of beauty that will catch you by surprise. That evening earlier this month, 10 Tijuana musicians showed that classically trained talent flourishes here amid the rhythms of norteno bands.

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“Tijuana is a city that hungers for classical music,” insists Jose Medina, a 34-year-old Tijuana-born tenor, one of an impromptu quartet that had their well-to-do audience delivering a standing ovation and clamoring for more.

The occasion was an $18-a-head fund-raiser for pianist Armando Pesqueira, held in the clubhouse of Fracciones de Cumbres, an upscale housing development above downtown. Pesqueira, who is president of Amigos de la Opera, an association of Tijuana opera enthusiasts, is heading north of the border to study conducting in San Francisco.

Many promising musicians simply leave and don’t come back — finding better-paid work in the United States. Or they settle in other parts of Mexico, where classically trained performers can expect broader audiences and greater government support.

“People who hear me ask, ‘Where are you from?’ ” says Marco Antonio Labastida, a 36-year-old tenor who trained at the prestigious Oberlin Conservatory in Ohio. “And I say, I’m from here, from Tijuana. The way they ask it’s as though they’re saying, ‘We just didn’t think that there are people with talent in Tijuana.’ ”

The mystery is not why classical musicians leave, but why those like Labastida and Medina opt to stick around. Though Medina performs in Europe, he has found a musical calling promoting opera in Tijuana.

Earlier this year, he worked with Amigos de la Opera to put on excepts from Puccini’s La Boheme, Verdi’s La Traviata and Rossini’s La Cenerentola for an appreciative audience of several hundred enthusiasts. Next year, Medina is helping the group with a production of Gaetano Donizetti’s L’Elisir D’Amore at the city’s Cultural Center.

“It has to be a top-quality production, or people won’t go,” said Medina. “We’re working really hard.”

Nobody gets rich playing classical music in Tijuana. Musicians will tell you they’re barely scraping by. Even the Baja California Orchestra, which gets government support, is down to 13 musicians working at half pay.

What sustains them is a sense of mission — that Tijuana needs and deserves their music. The challenge is finding institutional support.

Francisco Guerrero, a classical guitarist and academic coordinator at the Hispanic-American Guitar Center in Tijuana, believes you need to start young.

He does his bit — speaking to junior high school classes in a Tijuana shantytown, offering weekly guitar classes to children in the state capital of Mexicali and performing in duets and trios across the state.

The arts cultivate the spirit, says Guerrero, a native of the southern state of Oaxaca, a place where village bands play a vital social role. And a community that holds the arts in high regard, he says, is less likely to litter, suffers less corruption, enjoys a higher quality of life.

“People think that classical music is boring, because they don’t know about it,” he says.

Labastida, the tenor, believes an audience is there. “There are people who listen to classical music in their homes,” he says. “It’s just a question of finding them.”

SANDRA DIBBLE covers Tijuana. She can be reached at (619) 293-1716 and at [email protected]

Source: This post first appeared on sandiegouniontribune.com

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