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El Paso, Kurt Weill, and Tornillo’s Tent City

Readers of this blog may remember my last filing from El Paso – a “Kurt Weill’s America” festival, part of the NEH-supported “Music Unwound” consortium I direct, that ignited a week of discussion and debate about immigration past and present.

My most memorable experience that week was visiting Eastlake High School, in a semi-rural colonia, and telling 3,000 students about Weill, Walt Whitman, and Pearl Harbor. Weill’s immigrant’s response to FDR’s declaration of war on Japan, setting three Whitman Civil War poems, transfixed these remarkable young people. Mainly Mexican-American, they evince no sense of entitlement. When I was finished, the school chorus asked to sing for me. They chose “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

As I previously wrote:

“The quarterback for the El Paso Weill festival was Frank Candelaria, who as Associate Provost at the University of Texas/El Paso [UTEP] has the vision and persistence to make big things happen. Frank is an El Paso native, the first member of his family to obtain what is called ‘higher education’ — Oberlin and Yale. He left a tenured position at UT/Austin to return to El Paso five years ago. He expected the Weill festival to catch fire in El Paso, but the intimacy with which it penetrated personal lives took him by surprise. On the final day he said to me: ‘I learned a lot about my own city and how strongly people identify as Americans.’”

About a week ago, my issue of the Kurt Weill Newsletter arrived in the mail. It may well be the only classical-music magazine of quality we have left in the US. My blog about Weill in El Paso was there reprinted, with a full page of comments by students and participants. A UTEP student named Toni Torres wrote: “These projects on Kurt Weill gave me a new perspective on my citizenship. I need to be doing way more for my country and its music.”

No sooner did I read those words than I learned that Tornillo – one of the three colonias to which Candelaria has been bringing “Music Unwound” programs featuring UTEP faculty members and visiting artists — is to be the site of a tent city for children separated from their parents as a punishment for crossing the border illegally. Temperatures in Tornillo were predicted to shortly reach 105 degrees.

UTEP is a kind of miracle, an embodiment of the American Dream. More than 80 per cent of the students are Hispanic. More than 90 per cent are local. Any person with a high school diploma is accepted for admission. It inculcates high values that used to be termed American. It  is about to neighbor a holding facility for boys and girls, detained and corralled by our United States Government.


  1. James Dick says

    Was so glad to find and read your article ! Proud of UTEP and what it accomplices, as well as grateful that you bring this to the attention of a wider public! Also, very pleased to know of the Kurt Weill Newsletter and your support of it. With all best wishes and regards!

  2. The American and Mexican populations in the region have a long history of working together. I grew up on a farm in Deming, New Mexico. It’s near the Mexican border about 60 miles from El Paso. There’s a town across the border from Deming named Palomas. Educational opportunities in Palomas are limited, so everyday over 400 children from Palomas load into school buses to go to school in Deming or a nearby village named Columbus.

    This has gone on since the 1950s. Each student in NM costs over $10,000 per year so the cost of teaching these 400 kids is over 4 million dollars per year, but almost all the people in Deming are happy for it. They stand entirely apart from the appalling policies currently being enacted by Trump. And this even though NM is the poorest state in the nation, and Deming in the poorest county in NM. There are people even worse off, so Deming helps them. This is always what I associated with the American spirit.

    One can read about Deming educating Mexican children here:

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