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  • Voiced Silencings, Enacted CrossingsAn Interview with Ana R. Alonso-Minutti
  • Jesús A. Ramos-Kittrell

Can music interrupt the status quo and be an effective tool for activism? Accounts of violence toward politically silenced others have become characteristic of the experience of migration and of life in the Rio Grande region, the natural border separating Mexico from the US. To a large extent, these stories remain unnoticed, unacknowledged, or downright ignored. From the ongoing femicides of Mexican women in the region, to the remaining children living in cages at US border detention centers, the noise and political thickness of the public sphere has masked these silent others. Voces del desierto, a choir piece recently awarded the 2021 Robert M. Stevenson Prize by the Society for Ethnomusicology, engages heavily with the above question. "It is a piece about my experience in particular, in how I connected with the stories of migration across this region. It is also about processing trauma and bringing healing to the land," says Ana R. Alonso-Minutti, associate professor of musicology at the University of New Mexico and composer of the work. Given her position, there might seem to be an irreconcilable distance between illegal immigrants and Alonso-Minutti's aesthetic stance. Yet her academic career suggests otherwise. For the past ten years, Alonso-Minutti has turned her scholarship as a point of advocacy for equity in relation to gender and sexuality issues. Her recent composition accolade has opened new creative paths to these efforts. In this interview, she speaks about immigration, dislocation, and the role of music in activism. As the conversation unfolds, Alonso-Minutti recognizes her own positionality in relation to these issues. She is candid and forthcoming about her position, and about the privilege of being able to speak about these things openly (while others cannot).

Jesús A. Ramos-Kittrell:

How did Voces del desierto come about?

Ana R. Alonso-Minutti:

It was by a commission from Szu-Han Ho for a performance event called Migrant Songs. Szu-Han approached me and other four composers—all of us based in Albuquerque, New Mexico—with the idea of [End Page 100] writing about the migration experience across the Rio Grande. The piece had to be for choir, and this attracted me from the very beginning. Although I have composed music in the past, musicological scholarship is my main profession. But the fact that the commission called for a piece for voices incited me to participate because it is a medium which I am familiar with. Conceptually, the piece had to deal with issues of migration, with the concept of being a migrant. All of the five pieces reflected on this experience in that geographical context. The pieces also established a relationship between human migration and the migration of cranes, whose singing fills the river's soundscape in this part of New Mexico. The event, then, tried to weave the idea of human movement as part of this ecosystem.


The parallel with birds is intriguing. Can you tell us more about the reasons behind it?


Szu-Han made the connection between birds and humans because, in this part of the Rio Grande, both migrate. For a while she has been researching the process of developing calls among birds, which is somewhat resemblant to speech acquisition in humans. Birds attune to the call of their baby chicks to relate to them, and this communication instills an identitarian sense in young birds. Likewise with humans, song can be an expressive way to communicate with others, and relate important issues through the voice.


There is an interesting tension here between humans and birds in relation to "voice" and migration. The singing of birds is what fills up this region and they are free to migrate. Yet humans migrating through this region are arguably voiceless, and they are not necessarily "free."


That is a good point and it goes back to Szu-Han's idea. There was certainly an aesthetic concept behind the project (Migrant Songs), but she does not see art and activism as two separate things. She has a history of migration herself; she is deeply involved in advocacy initiatives pertaining immigrants...