Border program breaks down walls, brings American musicians and Mexican children together

NACO, Mexico – If you travel to the small border town of Naco, the first thing to catch your eye is a small, gloriously colored building that sits fewer than 500 feet from the port of entry.

It’s called Studio Mariposa, an idea that began with Bisbee artist Gretchen Baer’s desire to provide a place of free expression through art and music for the Mexican children of Naco.

Eight years ago, Baer and the kids began painting a mile-long mural along the wall on the U.S.-Mexico border. Last spring, that portion of the wall was torn down to make way for new fencing. Baer was sad to see the artwork go, but she decided to channel the kids’ creativity into a new project.

“The border wall is nothing,” Baer said. “It doesn’t stop art from happening, kids from being kids or loving to make music together.”

Studio Mariposa serves as a gathering place for children to create arts and crafts, but over the past year, it has grown to become home of the Mariposa Band. Baer wanted to give the children an opportunity to learn how to play different instruments and create original music. Now, musicians from the United States are crossing the border twice a week to play and teach music to the children of Naco.

Guitarist Eric Kruske said the project would not be possible without Baer’s vision.

“She dreams, and then she makes the dreams come true,” he said.

“She said to me, ‘I had a dream, and you guys were playing music and the kids were playing, too!’ and I said, ‘Well, let’s teach them.'”

It’s a project that’s breaking barriers along the border and uniting two countries. Studio Mariposa’s message is that children and adults from different countries can create harmony and find life’s meaning through the magic of music.

“I know that we all light up when we’re here,” Kruske said. “Everybody here comes down, and comes down again, and we all keep coming back. And the rewards are, really, that it feels good to help these kids.”

News of the project has spread throughout the U.S. and prompted offers of help. The studio relies solely on donations and musicians who volunteer their time. Their only drum kit came from the East Coast. Someone else decided to donate a set of flutes. For Baer, the outpouring of support has served as a healing process of sorts during a time she described as politically challenging.

Oscar is one of the children who eagerly flock to Studio Mariposa immediately after school to begin playing the instruments. Although there is a language barrier between him and the musicians, the mutual trust is evident.

Josue Gonzalez sits by the drum kit he’s learning to play. Music lessons would be financially out of reach for his family. (Photo by Adriana De Alba/Cronkite News)

Eric Kruske, a guitarist from Bisbee, volunteers his time giving Mexican children music lessons in Naco. (Photo by Adriana De Alba/Cronkite News)

Children in Naco learn from lead music director Mike Montoya. (Photo by Adriana De Alba/Cronite News)

Bisbee artist Gretchen Baer started Studio Mariposa, the program that unites American musicians and children in Naco, Mexico. (Photo by Adriana De Alba/Cronkite News)

“They’re good people, because there are some from the U.S. who won’t do this,” he said. “They teach us, and are kind to us.”

For the children living in tiny Naco, an opportunity like this is hard to come by. One of them, Josue Gonzalez, comes from a large family and wouldn’t have the means to get this experience anywhere else.

“It’s beyond my imagination,” Josue said.

He plays in the band every week and has found a love for the drums. Many of the families in Naco struggle to make ends meet. Without this opportunity, parents would not be financially capable of paying for their children to receive music lessons.

The U.S.-Mexico border is often thought of as firmly dividing two nations. But here in Naco, people come and go every day. The Naco port of entry is very fluid, and it usually takes less than five minutes to cross into the Mexican side of the border.

“I hope that’s one thing that our project inspires other people to (do) just, cross over,” Baer said.

“It’s OK on the other side; in fact, it’s really nice over here. It’s colorful, the people are warm and loving, there’s a lot of laughter. The kids are great! What’s not to love?”