By George B. Sánchez-Tello
Photos by Marco Loera

The musicians stand in a circle bisected by a steel wall. Divided, they play together: strumming acoustic instruments, singing call and response verses, and dancing in a communal celebration called fandango. Staged at Friendship Park, outside San Diego and situated at the edge of an 800-acre nature preserve, the only thing out of place is the wall.

The wall is chain link and steel mesh standing nearly 20 feet; its empty spaces were filled with rebar and more steel over time. The wall slopes down the bluffs, away from the park and into the surf.

The rhetorical centerpiece of Donald J. Trump’s bid to become the next president, the wall that runs through Friendship Park marks the border between the United States and Mexico. After the end of the U.S.-Mexican War, it was here in 1849 that the international boundary first began to take shape. For most of its existence, the site was open to anyone, from either side, to wander and picnic, but the barriers evolved over time. Today, the U.S. Border Patrol limits public visitation on the U.S. side of Friendship Park to between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays.

A literal imposition of federal policy, the wall bars the physical passage of people in a park meant to join countries and cultures. But the music scales that barrier.

The Fandango Fronterizo, like other events held at Friendship Park, may present an opportunity for federal agencies to engage Latinos, whose record of attendance on federal land is historically low. As U.S. public land agencies attempt to attract Latinos, there have been efforts to recognize and preserve places of cultural importance to Latinos.

“If [public land agencies] want to work with us, they need to recognize different relationships with land and different cultural histories. The fandango is a perfect example,” explains Jose G. Gonzalez, founder of Latino Outdoors, which connects Latinos to public land. “What is happening is what they are asking – diversity in the use and experience of land. It’s about expanding the understanding of culture and traditions connected to the land.”

Marce Graudiņš, founder and director of Azul, a Latino organization working to protect the coasts and oceans, suggests agencies also look at cultural events and offer support that doesn’t alter the gathering.

In addition to the fandango, Friendship Park hosts other events: Border church, were religious services are led on one side of the border and observed on both. There are legal clinics, allowing immigration attorneys to give advice to those on the other side of the border. There are Latin American celebrations, such as Las Posadas, a pre-Christmas ritual, and Día del Nino, a holiday that honors children. During this year’s Día del Nino, a gate in the wall opened for 20 minutes, allowing six families to briefly reunite.

“Whether it’s closed or not, it’s a portal,” explains Graudiņš, who grew up in Tijuana, near Friendship Park. “Whether physical, cultural, religious, psychic or spiritual, there are connections there.”

To enter Friendship Park, musicians in the U.S. pass through a retractable gate. Border agents lounge nearby. Signs warn of constant surveillance. Rules, in both English and Spanish, declare nothing may be passed through, over, or under the fence. The park may be closed at Border Patrol discretion. Despite the intimidation, men and women make music.

“It is a powerful moment to will the border out of existence for a span of two to three hours. The music, dance, and poetry of fandango in and through community has the ability to do this,” explains Martha Gonzalez, an assistant professor at SCRIPPS/Claremont College and vocalist for the Grammy award-winning Chicano group Quetzal. “But this is a culminating effect of what continues to happen once a month in many spaces across the country on both sides of the border.”

Friendship Park celebrates its 45th anniversary on Aug. 20. Fandango is a centuries-old gathering from the rural, Mexican Gulf Coast where villagers play traditional music called Son Jarocho. Musicians form the fandango in a circle. At the center lay a raised, percussive platform, where dancers tap out the rhythm. Songs can last up to an hour. While there are standard verses, choruses and form, the art of Son Jarocho unfolds through improvisation of lyric, music and dance. Similarly, at Friendship Park, the fandango adapts. Musicians form a circle, half in the U.S. and the other in Mexico.

The fandango held on Memorial Day requires six months of planning by an organizing committee comprised of volunteers and musicians on both sides of the border, as well as negotiation with the Border Patrol and the California Department of Parks and Recreation.

A time-consuming journey is required to participate. Musicians travel to Border Field State Park. The journey reverses modern travel: exit Interstate 5 at Dairy Mart Road, pass Smuggler Gulch onto the two-lane Monument Road, and park in an unpaved lot. Then walk a dirt trail. Food, drink and instrument must be carried.

Other than the soft crunch of earth underfoot, it is a quiet trail. The only sounds are the buzz of flies, occasional scamper of rabbits, or a hawk’s cry overhead. The trail runs west through the preserve and toward the beach. In the span of a single mile, the scenery changes drastically from ankle-height scrub to coastal groves.

From the beach, musicians march more than half a mile south to a path along the bluffs. The path rises above the shore to Monument Mesa, where a small plain spreads out, shaded by a solitary tree. Friendship Park lies at the southern end of the mesa.

“The walk is peaceful and calming, especially before entering such a militarized space,” explains Crystal Gonzalez, a Los Angeles master gardener and musician.

Like Gonzalez, hundreds travel to Friendship Park and the wall annually to participate in the fandango. Their presence is noticeable.

As the fandango concludes, a quartet of Latinos ride horseback through the preserve. In Spanish, the guide asks about the crowd: There are more people this day than he has ever seen in the park.