Human rights issues

The Landscape of Awareness

Guanajuato, Mexico

Guanajuato, Mexico

I’m fascinated by the way some ideas enter the public sphere, take hold and spread.  I see how trends in new music and art, initially forbidding and seemingly impenetrable, can capture the public imagination. Sometimes it's just a passing trend.  But sometimes, the art or music becomes a catalytic force; it’s a springboard for discussion, it generates new work. It sets us in motion.

I’ve noticed a change in the landscape of public awareness about human trafficking  since 2011, the year we began to develop Cuatro Corridos . At that time, human trafficking was beginning to emerge in the public consciousness as one of the critical human rights issues of our time.  Over the past three years, I’ve learned a great deal. I think back on conversations with my friend Lauren Vitiello, who works for the USCIS Asylum Office and attorney Dahlia Setareh and reading  a remarkable series of articles written by San Diego U-T reporter Elizabeth Aguilera.   I reflect on the presentations given by representatives of  organizations with whom we’ve worked in presenting public forums.  Each piece of information informs my understanding of  the complex issues surrounding human trafficking.  Each person with whom I speak informs my performances as we continue to present the opera.  

I notice a change in the public landscape as well.   While standing in line at the San Diego Airport, and staring idly at the electronic signage reminding me to take off my shoes, I was surprised to see a panel dedicated to human trafficking awareness.  I noticed similar signs popping up in all types of public transportation,  from campus shuttle buses at UC San Diego where I work, to subways of the New York City  MTA. During a cross country trip earlier this year, I saw large billboards denouncing human trafficking in Missouri, Oklahoma and Arizona.  My sister-in-law Donna gave me a newspaper article about the formation of a human trafficking task force in Arkansas.

These incremental changes may seem small, but taken together they have enormous impact.  Because the truth is, one of the biggest challenges to building awareness is simply making the idea visible. Victims of human trafficking face this challenge every day; they are hidden in plain sight.  It’s heartening to see that we’re being reminded, over and over, in public spaces, to engage with the idea that human trafficking is unacceptable.  

And there are many more artists who are speaking out against human trafficking.   I am proud to be part of a growing community of artists, including photographer Kay Chernush and musician Mark Sullivan, who are also constructing engaged, sustained responses to the issue, through the arts.  During my time at the Cervantino Festival this year, I had the chance to see a remarkable exhibit on view in the central square of Guanajuato by the artist Marya Martell.  The exhibit entitled Sueños Roblados  was a series of enlargements of photographs which document the empty rooms of girls who have disappeared.  We know nothing about what happened to the girls; they may be be trafficked or murdered.  An empty bed, a poster on the wall, a room filled with dolls and pillows; Martell provides evidence that these young women existed.   No matter how unlikely the possibility that they will return, the photographs serve as a testament to their lives and a reminder to us that much more needs to be done. I found it incredibly moving.

Cuatro Corridos has given me a chance to be a part of this evolving landscape of awareness.   Since the San Diego premiere in 2013, we’ve taken the project to Tijuana, DallasAlbuquerque and Los Angeles, and are bringing to one of the most important theaters in Mexico City this coming May.   I'm pleased by  what we’ve been able to accomplish and grateful for the support of everyone who has contributed to the project.   

I wish that we could snap our fingers and that human trafficking would vanish - that the whole notion would be unthinkable.  Real life is a lot more complicated than that and there’s no simple solution.  But I’m proud - very proud - to be part of a growing number of people who are walking in the same direction, though a landscape that is slowly and steadily, beginning to change.    

Lei Liang: "....the knife makes me feel so clumsy."

  Cuatro Corridos composer, Lei Liang, reflects on the impact human trafficking in his life:

I feel a special connection to this project. When I left China at 17 years of age, I used to wait tables in Chinese restaurants to make ends meet. At these restaurants, I came to know some Chinese workers who had come to the US illegally. They were smuggled in and went through unimaginable sufferings to arrive here, leaving behind their families. They cook for us and provide us delicious meals, yet most of us would never know of their existence and their stories: they are “invisible.”

I remember my co-worker’s story. He had been a junior high school teacher in China. He told me how he was smuggled to the US and what he witnessed: rapes, abuses, and life-and-death moments when the smugglers wanted to abandon them in the sea.

He cut vegetables in the restaurant, and he always had a bandage wrapped around his left-hand. He was slow. The restaurant owner constantly complained and rushed him, even though he kept cutting into his hand. “I was a teacher of Chinese classics; the knife makes me feel so clumsy,” he said.

He and the others were my co-workers, and we became friends. Hearing their stories, I always felt that these “invisible” and “unheard” workers needed to be heard, but I didn’t know what I could do as a composer.

This chamber opera, Cuatro Corridos, resonates with me on a profound level; in a way, I feel as if I finally can contribute to the project that I always wanted to be part of – giving a voice to those who are unheard.

A Speech and a Step

"...And today, I want to discuss an issue that relates to each of these challenges. It ought to concern every person, because it is a debasement of our common humanity. It ought to concern every community, because it tears at our social fabric. It ought to concern every business, because it distorts markets. It ought to concern every nation, because it endangers public health and fuels violence and organized crime. I’m talking about the injustice, the outrage, of human trafficking, which must be called by its true name -- modern slavery

Now, I do not use that word, "slavery" lightly. It evokes obviously one of the most painful chapters in our nation’s history. But around the world, there’s no denying the awful reality. When a man, desperate for work, finds himself in a factory or on a fishing boat or in a field, working, toiling, for little or no pay, and beaten if he tries to escape -- that is slavery. When a woman is locked in a sweatshop, or trapped in a home as a domestic servant, alone and abused and incapable of leaving -- that’s slavery.

When a little boy is kidnapped, turned into a child soldier, forced to kill or be killed -- that’s slavery. When a little girl is sold by her impoverished family -- girls my daughters’ age -- runs away from home, or is lured by the false promises of a better life, and then imprisoned in a brothel and tortured if she resists -- that’s slavery. It is barbaric, and it is evil, and it has no place in a civilized world. "  - President Barack Obama, September 25, 2012

Read the entire text of President Barack Obama's address to the Clinton Global Initiative on the subject of human trafficking.

Nicholas Kristof's New York Times article of September 26, 2012 comments on the President's speech. In the first paragraph, Kristof writes "When President Obama made a landmark speech against modern slavery on Tuesday, many of us in the news media shrugged. It didn’t fit into the political narrative. It wasn’t controversial, so - yawn - it wasn’t really news..." 

Kristof then goes on to cite the effect that this speech had on human rights advocates, some of whom were former victims of human trafficking themselves. Some have waited for years for this moment. It is an important step: to build public awareness, to take a strong stand. But most important, to keep taking steps - over and over and over.  

- Susan Narucki