Music

An opera tries to explore and debunk a popular Mexican border myth

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Camelia La Texana, a female drug smuggler who killed her partner after he betrayed her with another woman, isn't a real person. But just try and tell that to many Mexicans.

The story of Camelia was first told in the song "Contrabando y Traición" or "Contraband and Betrayal." It was made famous by the norteño band Los Tigres del Norte, and it was a big hit in the early 1970s — a totally fictional one, as confirmed by the song's writer, Ángel González.

Yet many Mexicans think Camelia is a real person. "It's a very important myth in Mexico," says Mexican composer Gabriela Ortiz. "All the people know who is Camelia La Texana. Many people think that she's real, that she exists. There are many women who claim to be Camelia La Texana."

Ortiz wrote an opera about the myth of Camelia named "Unicamente la Verdad," or "Only the Truth." The title comes from the slogan of a Mexican tabloid called Alarma!, which hyped up reports of the "real" Camelia's existence.

When Ortiz and her brother, Rubén Ortiz Torres, researched the story, they were fascinated by the role of newspapers like Alarma! in sustaining the myth of a real-life Camelia. "The interesting thing is how the media contributes to form this myth," she says. "So basically, the inspiration of my opera, in terms of the music, comes from that."

When the opera was first performed in Mexico City in 2010, Ortiz Torres says some foreign news outlets saw it as a reflection of the drug violence going on in Mexico.  

"And for me it was kind of surreal," he says, "It's about a song from 1972, an incident from 1986. I wrote this somewhere in the 90s ... I mean, the song is the first 'narcocorrido,' [the name for Mexican songs about the drug trade], it is true. But drug smuggling, as the composer of the songs says — as long as there's borders, there's gonna be smuggling."

The opera, he says, is more about how the media creates a character and makes it look real, and how that character becomes a myth in the popular imagination. And Ortiz knows just how firmly that myth has stuck.

"I remember asking a taxi driver, 'Do you think that Camelia is a real character?'" she says, "He said to me, 'Yes, I really believe that, because if the corrido talks about her, it's because it's true. All the corridos tell the truth.'"

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