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Mexican opera tackles the myth of 'Camelia la Tejana,' icon of narcocorridos

March 12, 2010 |  4:26 pm

Camelia la tejana1

In the world of narcocorridos -- Mexican folk songs that recount the exploits of drug traffickers and criminals -- few are better known that "Contrabando y traicion," one of the earliest such tunes that was popularized by the trailblazing Los Tigres del Norte in the early 1970s.

"Contraband and Betrayal" tells the story of Camelia la Tejana, a woman who smuggles drugs into the United States then shoots and kills her lover in a jealous rage. (Here's an early video of the song on YouTube.)

The original author of "Contrabando y traicion" has long insisted the story is made up. Yet in 1986, in an issue of Mexico’s blood-and-gore tabloid Alarma!, a woman identified as "Camelia la Tejana" appeared in a news photograph weeping over the body of a lover who was decapitated by a train in Ciudad Juarez. Curiously, two different women subsequently appeared in the Mexican press claiming to be Camelia la Tejana -- and telling wildly divergent stories about their lives.

The myth of this narcocorrido figure is the subject of "Unicamente la verdad," or "Only the Truth," an experimental new opera that debuted this week at the Festival de Mexico in Mexico City. The opera, written and conceived by a pair of prominent artist siblings, tackles the border between fiction and reality, and the often taboo topic of Mexico's long and bloody history with drug smuggling along its border with the United States.

Composer Gabriela Ortiz and Los Angeles-based visual artist Ruben Ortiz Torres said they had been searching for a topic for a collaborative project when they came upon the old Alarma! clip. In their view, the story had all the elements of high drama necessary for opera, almost like a modern-day Mexican "Salome," the siblings said. But the presence of a contradictory myth and the context of a volatile drug conflict in Ciudad Juarez added challenging twists to the project.

"It was difficult to set Alarma!  to music," said Gabriela Ortiz, who incorporated into her score the accordion and tuba, instruments traditionally used in Mexican norteno music. "The music does have that flavor of the north, but more like a hybrid, and always through my lens."

With the help of grants, the Ortiz siblings put together an initial production of "Unicamente la verdad" at the University of Indiana in 2008. Ruben Ortiz, known for his often hybrid-themed video, photography and installation work, wrote the opera's libretto and produced videos that are projected onstage. Much of the footage was shot in Ciudad Juarez and Tijuana, he said.

"I conceived this as more than an opera, but as a contemporary art piece," Ruben Ortiz said.

The revised production of "Unicamente la verdad" premiered March 11 to a warm audience reception at the Teatro Julio Castillo in Mexico City's Chapultepec Park. Nieves Navarro, an emerging Mexican soprano, anchors the opera, playing the three different "personalities" of Camelia la Tejana.

It hasn't been lost on the authors that these days in Mexico, some political forces are attempting to ban narcocorridos from the airwaves. It recently happened to Los Tigres del Norte over a song that criticized the government's campaign against the cartels.

"It's absurd," Gabriela Ortiz said. "I think what they should do is attack the reality. Narcocorridos exist because a problem exists."

-- Daniel Hernandez in Mexico City

Photo: Gerardo Reynoso and Nieves Navarro in "Unicamente la verdad." Credit: Festival de Mexico

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