On the morning of Saturday, April 13, 2019, it is warm and overcast on the banks of the Rio Grande River in Laredo, Texas. Barn swallows fill the air above the river, their tiny dartlike shapes shifting midflight, swooping in unison as they feed on the insects that rise above the river. A small makeshift stage has been erected for world-renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma. Ma is tuning his instrument, preparing to play a piece by Bach that will send music over water, across the border, and into the consciousness of all who are listening.
Ma is here on a mission to heighten what unites us rather than what separates us. (He spent the evening in San Antonio for a Bach Project concert the night before.) Debates over the border and immigration have been fractious during the Trump presidency, but people living at the border share a common story, and culture is the key to understanding one another. Today, Ma is the ambassador to our better selves.
I am a rancher who lives upriver from where we are sitting, and this area has been at the center of the immigration debate. My ranch is situated nine miles from the Rio Grande, and interactions with immigrants are a frequent occurrence for me. We are on a passageway for those who are moving north; for me, immigration from Mexico and Central America is experiential, not theoretical. I have had hundreds encounters with immigrants, one bad and the rest non-threatening. I have seen it all—the good, the bad, and those who are desperately escaping to a country where they believe they can survive, perhaps even thrive.
Before Ma sets bow to string, he speaks to the assembled crowd of several hundred in a rare (for him) statement on the political realities of the day. “I would like to read to you all what is inscribed on the Statue of Liberty,” Ma says. “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door.” He pauses. “We are a country, not a hotel, and we are not full. In culture, we seek truth and understanding. In culture, we build bridges, not walls.” Then heart and mind unite with the cello, and air and water blend, magnifying the musical notes into an otherworldly experience.
At the conclusion of his brief performance, I depart along with Ma’s entourage and the mayors of both Laredo, Texas, and Nuevo Laredo, Mexico. Crossing the river, our group is ushered into Estación Palabra, the library and community center where Ma will play and listen to the stories of the citizens of Nuevo Laredo. One by one, four students from Nuevo Laredo tell Ma of their journey into their chosen art form and how it has transformed their lives. Ma listens intently as the young artists reflect on how their field of artistic endeavor has enhanced their lives. The students—a dancer, a flautist, a soprano, and a cellist—all have unique stories. Ma is affable and sincere, responding, “Your love of something was stronger than your fear. The key is to feel, analyze, form a strategy, then pass it on to others, become a teacher of your experience.” As he explains it, culture is about learning to understand the truths in human relations, and for Ma, music is the way to find those truths.
Back from Nuevo Laredo, we gather at the Laredo Center for the Arts. Ma engages adults and children in a conversation centered on the things we all have in common. Food and music are held up as a symbol of generosity of spirit.
Ma’s larger point is in how cultural understanding can lead to a better future. Curiosity, he said, is the key. Music is a way to train your imagination. First it lives in you, then in someone else, and then before you know it, you are a teacher. Keep your mind open and do not prejudge. And here, of course, is where our geographical locale of the U.S.-Mexico border comes into play.
“Where two particular ecosystems meet, there is less density but more diversity. Here we are on the edge, and that is important because it allows you to be open to more ideas.”
At 3 p.m in the La Posada hotel in Laredo I sit down with Ma, who seems to be the happiest man on earth. He radiates all he espouses. I ask Ma how his musical education helped form his perspective of the world. “I had a teacher in college who told me, ‘you’re pretty good, but you have no idea what you are doing,'” he says. “So I began to explore the music of every composer I played, to unlock the essence, to get at the truth of what they were trying to communicate. [Music] should be approached as a mystery; you listen and then figure out the mystery. As you figure out the mystery, you somehow figure out yourself. Once you figure out yourself, you can then pass it on to others—you are now a teacher.”
Perhaps one of the most influential teachers Ma had, he says, was Fred Rogers, of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. After 911, people asked Mr. Rogers, what do we do? His response was, “Look for the helpers; the helpers are always there.”
“And Laredo,” said Ma, “is filled with helpers. What we need to do is ask for help.” This approach, opening ourselves up to assistance from others, helps us overcome what he calls the “arrogance of certitude.”
As my fifteen minutes comes to a close, Ma imparts a final message. “Hugh,” he says with intensity, “I work in the field of culture, and the currency of culture is trust. So I play cello in the stone soup way. Do you remember the story of stone soup? It is what I have to offer. I bring the stone, and then someone else brings water, then vegetables—whatever someone can bring, they offer. People bring a certain state of mind, and Bach has that special gift to [add to] the soup, for he can even [out] our thoughts. I find my own voice by inhabiting another. The end result is trust.”
Now it is back to the river and party time. Food trucks, high school mariachi bands, poets, dancers, and artists of all persuasions line the banks of the river for a celebration of Ma’s visit. The Rio Grande International Research Center, led by the intrepid and fearless Tricia Cortez, is front and center, urging all to pay attention to the river and take care of it. Families by the score settle in and listen. Mothers and fathers, grandmothers with infants on their shoulders, and toddlers with quickly melting snow cones seek shade as the music from a high school mariachi band gets the crowd moving and then singing in unison.
As a finale, Brendan Townsend, the music director of the Laredo Philharmonic, and his wife, cellist Angeline Townsend, have orchestrated a performance of “Rapsodia on the Rio Grande,” a composition by Dr. Colin Campbell of Texas A&M International University. It is a magnificent collaboration of orchestra and mariachi that reflects the beauty and the pathos of this river. Just as the music begins, a gust of wind sets sheet music aloft, but Ma quickly appears, chases down the sheet music, and then holds it in place for the cellist during the performance.
Before his departure, Ma takes the microphone one more time. “You all in Laredo have learned how to live life by celebrating joyously with each other. I want to emulate what I have learned here today. I want to go back to Boston and tell my friends what they are missing.”
Here, on this river, we are the thread sewing together two nations that are joined by water and a common culture. To tighten that thread, we need to stand together and celebrate those things we have in common. What is unique about this river and this border is that it is really a border in name only. The history of the relationship between Mexico and Texas goes back almost 200 years. Once we were one, and, like it or not, we are still “joined at the hip” in a land that is a transnational passage way for produce, manufactured goods, and, yes, people looking for a better life. Ma has made his point. We must “celebrate what we have in common, then pass it on.”
Hugh Fitzsimons is the author of A Rock between Two Rivers: Fracturing a Texas Family Ranch.