A Cultural Excursion to the First International Performance of Cuatro Corridos in Tijuana

Cuatro Corridos partnered with Turista Libre, a modern tour service providing cultural day trips throughout Northern Baja, to create an enriching excursion for those from points north who wanted to attend the performance and experience the new Tijuana.

The tour included bus transportation in and around Tijuana, dinner and drinks at the celebrated La Corriente Cevicheria Nais, a brief tour of the downtown “pasajes” described by the New York Times as “Tijuana’s true new cultural nexus,” and attendance of the chamber opera performance and post reception. 

An improving economy and waning drug violence have created the perfect environment for a cultural boom in San Diego’s sister city. Whether it be architectural, culinary, musical or artistic, Tijuana’s regeneration is truly inspiring.

Tijuana is alive with an organic cultural vibrancy; from individual efforts such as Miguel Buenrostro’s attempts to reactivate Tijuana’s beautiful abandoned spaces, to community based projects like Opera en la Calle or the grassroots rejuvenation of some of the city's deserted tourist shopping corridors.


Discovering Tijuana - Susan Narucki


I love cities. I always have. They are the fascinating dinner partners of my imagination. I think that if we are patient enough and have a good guide, a city will slowly open itself up to us and share all of its layers - the essence beyond the surface where details become vivid and rush up to meet the senses. 

Sharing Cuatro Corridos with a binational audience has always been a goal of mine. Almost immediately after our world premiere at UCSD, we began the journey to find a perfect home for the project in Tijuana. And the city has revealed itself to be nothing short of extraordinary.

Our first trip was organized by a wonderful guide, Tijuana resident, artist, and binational blogger, Jill Holslin. Jill introduced us to Miguel Buenrostro. Miguel's project, Reactivating Spaces has brought life back to the remarkable abandoned urban spaces of the city through a combination of cultural events, reestablishing urban occupancy and encouraging small businesses to thrive. 


 While we had hoped to bring a performance of Cuatro Corridos to one of these spaces, our technical needs (and the tons of percussion) proved too much of a barrier.   But what we saw was remarkable.  Pasajes with micro breweries, literary cafés and art galleries. An ornate deserted ballroom above a decades old dance club and the beautiful jewel box interior of a former bus station (now shopping plaza) full of balconies and dazzling light.  We were introduced to some of the best ceviche I've ever eaten at the hip and modern Cevicheria Corriente Nais - Red snapper, shrimp, octopus, tuna, (sometimes served on a disk of jicama) were all fantastic and fresh. 

After much searching, we finally found our home at the historic Casa de la Cultura. Through the graciousness of its director, Carmen Garcia, and with the assistance of Mexican cultural liaison Walter Padilla we will bring a free performance to their 450-seat theater. 

The Casa de la Cultura is a beautiful tree-lined neoclassical building situated on a hill overlooking the city. But it is truly beautiful because it is full of life. Children of all ages study music and dance there daily. Little girls in tutus flutter past while the sound of flute and piano echo the through the halls. It's a place where people meet; there is a lovely cafe, art gallery and, of course, refurbished theater. 

Ultimately, cities reveal themselves through the people who inhabit them, what they do and who they are. What I saw in Tijuana was the strength of people loving the city and proud of what it is and what it can be. And I am proud that on September 28th, Cuatro Corridos will be there too

Fusing Art and Awareness - UCSD student interview with Cuatro Corridos collaborators

 Cuatro Corridos is a new opera collaboration that aims to raise awareness about human trafficking. UCSD undergraduate Nicolette Valicenti connects with two people instrumental in the development of the project: Lauren Vitiello of Asylum and ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) and Karen Guancione, an artist, activist, and Cuatro Corridos production concept leader. Here she asks their impressions on the process of fusing art with consciousness raising. 


THE POWER OF PEOPLE by Nicolette Valicenti

I had the pleasure of interviewing Lauren Vitiello and Karen Guancione, longtime friends of Cuatro Corridos project leader and soprano, Susan Narucki. These two women have been instrumental in supporting Ms. Narucki’s work to shed light on the issue of human trafficking.

Lauren is an Asylum Officer for the US Citizenship and Immigration Services (CIS) for the Department of Homeland Security. She’s had experience interviewing hundreds of people seeking refuge in the U.S. Speaking to trafficked women over the years, Lauren has described the situation as unimaginable to the average citizen.

photo by Jim Carmody

photo by Jim Carmody

“Women who come to America are not only completely unaware of the American culture, but also are suddenly experiencing brutal human trafficking where they suffer physical and sexual abuse. They have no resources to take care of themselves and lack the awareness to know that there are people who would care for them, and must accept the conditions they are enduring."

Stunned by the gruesome stories of some trafficked women, I asked Lauren how important it is to make people aware of human trafficking in the U.S. She responded, "People everywhere need to know about this issue. It is happening in the cities, in suburbia, in the interior of the country and we are all responsible."

After speaking with Vitiello, I realized how Cuatro Corridos also signifies the importance of education.  It spreads the message that we all need to be aware of the harsh realities surrounding us. Our conversation opened up my eyes, the eyes of an undergraduate college freshman, to my ignorance to such injustices. I discovered that we must ask questions and keep learning from all people around us in order to be proactive and not reactive. We must expose the injustice we discover, and never cease to speak up for those who cannot speak up for themselves.

Karen Guancione is an artist and an activist who has been involved in many projects and installations promoting human rights. She has put together pieces supporting activists, environmental protection, the alleviation of human suffering, and many others. 

In addition, Guancione has spent time in Mexico creating a community art piece. In Mexico, Karen’s art honored the women’s domestic work. She drew domestic objects such as needles, thread, and brooms onto cloths. The cloths ranged from clothes to flags, and fabrics from members of the community. This art was displayed in the local cultural center. All types of people gathered in this small room and expressed community and unity over this art.

She explains, "The best thing was the connections I made with people. The indigenous women adored the art. They felt it and were able to see themselves and their community in the piece. Art is a way to move and affect people, increase awareness, and do something with your skills."

Guancione has been working on the creative development and collaboration of the opera and sees its value as an activist art form. 

“I am thrilled to work on this project. What I find most striking about this issue is how invisible it is. Human trafficking happens right under our noses. Cuatro Corridos is representational of a big story, affecting people everywhere. We cannot control what a person does after they are affected by an art piece, but we can encourage them to act on their emotions."

Cuatro Corridos intersects art and society to spread awareness of human trafficking.  By caring about an issue and sharing your knowledge of it, you can create a change for the betterment of human kind. The human mind is powerful and limitless. Narucki, Vitiello, and Guancione exemplify and support the genius of creativity and how through knowledge and compassion one can utilize their own skills to empower a group of people and bring goodness to a suffering community.


Nicolette Valicenti, a UCSD undergraduate freshman who's passion for music led her to Narucki, where she has found herself intrigued with music's ability to enable change.

San Diego Union Tribune's Jim Chute Talks with Project Leader and Soprano Susan Narucki


For more than three decades, Susan Narucki has been devoted to contemporary music.

She’s sung more than 100 premieres of new works with collaborators that include nearly every significant conductor, orchestra, music festival and new-music ensemble.

But for the Grammy-winning soprano, who has been a professor at UC San Diego since 2008, something is missing.

“It’s frustrating to me as a performer of the music of our time not to see that music as central to bringing people together, to creating community, to speaking to issues that are of concern to us in society,” Narucki said.

So she is conducting an experiment.

In collaboration with Mexican author Jorge Volpi and guitarist Pablo Gomez, she commissioned four composers to each write a segment of a one-woman chamber opera that will bring attention to the issue of human trafficking.

“Cuatro Corridos” will have its first performances Wednesday, May 10 and May 11 at the Conrad Prebys Music Center’s Experimental Theater with Narucki, Gomez, pianist Aleck Karis and percussionist Steven Schick.

Narucki and Volpi point to numerous news reports (including an investigative report in The New York Times Magazine) that have identified the village of Tenancingo, in the Mexican state of Tlaxcala, as the undisputed center of Mexico’s sex trade. From there, kidnapped and coerced women are exported across the border, many to the “fields of love” outside San Diego’s strawberry fields.

Volpi’s libretto, written in the verse of the Mexican corrido, concerns four women: a female member of the Salazar Juárez brothers kidnapping ring (Dalia); a Chicano policewoman in San Diego (Rose), and two young victims from Tlaxcala (Azucena and Violeta).

Each of the four composers, working independently, tells one of the women’s stories: for Hebert Vázquez, Azucena; Arlene Sierra, Dalia; Lei Liang, Rose; and Hilda Paredes, Violeta.

“The pieces that we now have by these composers are so strong,” Narucki said. “They each speak to the other in a way that I hadn’t expected. When you hear them, they combine to form this narrative arc that’s pretty extraordinary.”

The completed chamber opera, which was workshopped at the Yellow Barn in Vermont in March, is designed to be “portable,” and Narucki is committed to giving it a life beyond its premiere. Already a performance is scheduled at the Nasher Sculpture Center in Dallas for October.

“Part of doing this project has to do with getting older and realizing that I’m not going to be doing this forever,” Narucki said. “I’d like to see if there’s a way to do something a little bit different, to break the mold and go in a different direction and start a trend that could be good for the art form — and good for life in general.”


"The Land of Honey" by Hilda Paredes

When Pablo Gómez and Susan Narucki asked me to participate in this project I felt immediately excited to take part as the subject matter has been one of great interest to me. Previously in my opera El Palacio Imaginado I have addressed social and political issues like the abuse of women in Latin America in particular in Mexico.

In Cuatro Corridos I saw the possibility to try to give a voice to the hundreds of Mexican women who have been murdered along the border between the US and Mexico.


The text of Jorge Volpi also gave me the possibility to address the issue of what I call self-colonialism imbedded in the minds of so many Mexicans who believe life is better across the border or anywhere else for that matter than in their own country. This is why I chose to highlight one of Volpi’s verses as a title for my piece: La tierra de la miel (The land of honey.) These are the words that Iris’ father tells her to persuade her to go away with the men who will ultimately rape her and force her into prostitution across the border.

As Violeta tells the story of her friend Iris, the musical dramaturgy addresses the overwhelming impact of the abuse suffered by women by means of destroying the language as a way to reflect an inner world, which has become powerless and meaningless. After rape or murder, the words get split between all the performers, as if trying to say something but without being able to articulate properly after such an abusive experiences.

At the end of the piece we hear the voice of the dead Iris, who sings in Náhuatl, her mother tongue. Often such girls come from indigenous communities with very few prospects for a better life. While her body rests amongst the fields of strawberries, her voice sings from another world, wishing to return to her homeland and the comfort of her mother.

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.

An Interview with Susan Narucki

The Reason for Cuatro Corridos by Jon Potter


"What would your life be like to be in a place where you’re held against your will physically, but even if you get out of it, you’re still a slave not just because of physical restrictions, but also because you’re also invisible in society?"

That was the question Susan Narucki posed, as she discussed her new venture, a chamber opera about human trafficking across the U.S.-Mexico border. She added, "I can’t even put into words how outrageous this is."

So she and some collaborators are putting it into words...and music.

Soprano Narucki, writer Jorge Volpi, four composers and three other musicians are in Putney this week working on the music for "Cuatro Corridos," a new chamber opera based on real events from the frontlines of the immigration issue. They are here as part of Yellow Barn’s Artist Residency Program, sweating the musical details in preparation for a May 8 premiere in San Diego, Calif.

Local audiences have two chances for a sneak preview of this very relevant new work. On Thursday at 7 p.m., at the Putney Public Library, the artists will discuss their work. Admission is free. On Saturday at 8 p.m., at Next Stage on Kimball Hill, they will perform "Cuatro Corridos." Admission is $12, and a discussion with the ensemble will follow the performance.

Narucki should be familiar to local audiences as a long-time Yellow Barn faculty member. A Grammy Award-winner and champion of new work, Narucki first encountered issues around immigration in 2008 when she was appointed professor of music at the University of California, San Diego.

Narucki connected with a friend of a friend who was interested in writing a libretto about this. From there, the idea of a chamber opera grew.

"We didn’t think it would blossom into something as large as this," she said.

From those initial conversations, "Cuatro Corridos (Four Ballads)" developed into a collaboration that involved writer Jorge Volpi, who based the libretto on true events. "Cuatro Corridos" tells the story of four women -- two who are trafficked, one who aids in their trafficking and a police officer bent on stopping them -- whose lives are intertwined and changed forever. Mexican composers Hilda Paredes and Hebert Sandrin and American composers Arlene Sierra and Lei Liang each write one episode of this hour-long work, which is performed by guitarist Pablo Gómez, pianist Aleck Karis, percussionist Ayano Kataoka and Narucki, who gives voice to all four women.

Narucki said the four women’s intertwining stories lend themselves well to opera.

"One of the things that opera does best is it can tell us about emotionally complex feelings and situations and not always in words," she said. "So much of this is charged with emotion. I can’t imagine that it could be a play because it is too charged."

Narucki is not sure what effect "Cuatro Corridos" will have, but she’s happy to do her part.

"I’m an artist not a politician, so what can I do? I don’t know if it’s actually going to raise awareness of the problem, but it’s just what I can do," she said. "For some time, I have been interested in performance projects that take the music of our time and put it in the context of community."

She is grateful to Yellow Barn for having the Residency Program so that the many artists involved with the project can converge from San Diego, Mexico, London and other points and work together.

"It’s a wonderful chance for us to just spend time on the musical preparation of the piece," she said. "It’s a very rare and wonderful thing to just be able to take a week and say to the composer ‘What are you dreaming of?’ ...This is extraordinary. It just doesn’t happen."

Jon Potter writes for The Brattleboro Reformer: