Peregrinos (Pilgrims) is inspired by my two-year composer’s residency with the Indianapolis Symphony (2007-2009) in which I was privileged to an inside glimpse of the city’s thriving and quickly-growing Latino community. During this time, the Indianapolis Symphony brilliantly brokered meetings with Latino reverends, local politicians, nurses, young parents, “at-risk” youth, carpenters, ESL teachers, community activists, librarians, salsa musicians, and many others who were stunningly generous in sharing their experiences as immigrants. Many had only recently arrived to the States, and many were undocumented. All impressed me deeply as to their humor, their perseverance, and their humanity in the face of daunting odds including the U.S.’s inconsistent policies regarding immigration. As the daughter of an immigrant from Perú myself, this experience resonated with me deeply.
The inspiration to cast each movement of Peregrinos as a testimonio stems from my friendship with the members of the Latino Youth Collective, a grass-roots organization that mentors young Latinos and inspires them to enroll in college. In addition to acquiring the skills to create film documentaries on a myriad of subjects, participants in the program learn to speak publicly, formally sharing their stories — testimonios — with others.
The five testimonios of Peregrinos encapsulate some basic themes of hope and challenge that emerged during my journey within Latino Indianapolis. They are:
Testimonio I: Arbol de Sueños (Dream Tree): A community art project started by the Indianapolis-based Theater of Inclusion, the Dream Tree is a simply constructed laundry drying rack to which brightly-colored flagging tape is tied and allowed to stream in the wind. On each of the tape ribbons are handwritten messages of hope and aspiration by people from all walks of life. Throughout the many activities of my residency, Dream Trees were slowly added to as people, with shyness or skepticism nicely in check, contributed their personal hopes. I was also struck by the coincidence of a “dream tree” figuring prominently in many Latin American creation myths and, accordingly, there is a hint of Latin American música folklórica in this movement.
Testimonio II: Hero Brothers: While becoming acquainted with the aforementioned Latino Youth Collective, I became friends with KS, an undocumented eleven-year-old originally from Mexico, already attuned to social justice and college-bound. His road is somewhat more difficult than his little brother who was born in the States and who consequently carries enormous guilt on his young shoulders. The bond between the brothers, however, is tight as with the Hero Brothers Hunahpu and Xbalanque of ancient Mayan myths whose adventures feature the two overcoming morally questionable supernatural beings. This movement is flavored with the sound of marimbas, an important instrument of Central America, and is robust, powerful, and optimistic in its spirit.
Testimonio III: Fireflies: The majority of the testimonios shared with me during my time in Indianapolis were about difficult experiences. On one occasion, a young woman described for me her passage across the Mexican border. After a good number of hours in the trunk of a car with two other women, she was let out somewhere in Arizona to stretch her legs. Momentarily blind from the long hours of darkness, she rubbed her eyes to encourage her vision to return, eventually realizing that the sparks flying crazily in front of her in the evening air were actually fireflies dancing across cemetery tombstones. These fireflies would come back to haunt her in ongoing dreams of disorientation and anxiety that she could never shake.
Testimonio IV: Devotional for Sarita Colonia: The belief in a higher protective spirit would also come up many times in people’s stories. During my residency, I learned about Sarita Colonia, a young Peruvian woman from the mountains who migrated to the coast for a better life early in the 20th century. She encountered only more difficulties before eventually dying of sickness, and was later sainted for her work with the poor. She is regarded as an especial protector of immigrants. During the writing of Peregrinos, I made one of my frequent visits to Peru, and encountered Sarita’s image and name on highway billboards and on rearview mirror decorations in taxi cabs.
Testimonio V: Arbol de Sueños: Throughout the residency, the theme of hope and vision persisted in spite of the difficult realities posed for immigrants. This final testimonio is a return to the opening lyrical portrait of a community’s aspirations.
– Gabriela Lena Frank