Somewhat inelegantly self-categorized as a “theaterwork with music,” “By the Hand of the Father” has elements of a concert, a staged reading and a Ken Burns documentary. But whatever it may be called, the piece is a wonderful addition to the literature of the American immigrant experience.
While addressing the experiences of the Mexican families who came north in the early part of the 20th century, the story is a universal one: Parents try to make a home for themselves in a new world, but their children, no matter how assimilated they become, still feel the pull of their ancestors. Circular in construction, less a narrative than a meditation, the production unfolds in anecdotal fashion, as narrators Rose Portillo (who co-wrote the piece) and Kevin Sifuentes enter the stage and light candles at a homemade altar.
They lead the audience through the stories of families who crossed the border looking for a better life, but end up discovering that the vista was unbroken, and “mud cakes the same” in the north as in the south. Their children enter the Army, start to take their place in American life, but no matter how far they rise, they still suffer from discrimination. To most Americans, they’re still “Mexican.”
For all the hardships, these early stories have a poignant, dreamy tone; the mood grows darker as their children, the first American-born generation, take over the story. Suspended between the traditional world of their parents and the postwar world into which they were born, their stories take on an emotional edge.
Austin musician Alejandro Escovedo’s songs (available on TMG Records) are a perfect counterpart to the evening’s passions and sweep. Refined and earthy, the music combines the traditional instruments — the accordions and bajo sexto of tejano — with the chamber delicacy of violin and cello. Escovedo’s gentle voice is a beautifully expressive instrument, as songs such as “Wave” and “Silence” reflect the story’s triumphs and regrets.
Looking as elegant as Tony Bennett, Ruben Ramos (best known in America as a member of Los Super Seven) brings a depth to “Did You Tell Me?” and “Cancion Mixteca,” his voice a living remnant of a past. A percussion duet between Pete Escovedo (Alejandro’s brother) and his daughter Sheila E. underscores the sense of a cultural legacy passed between generations.
Production is simple and effective. Archive photographs projected behind the musicians show the harsh conditions of the Southwest in the early part of the 20th century, and the faces seen in wedding photos and home movies map the life they led in every line and wrinkle. By the end of the evening, their experience has been made art in this unflinching homage.