On Sunday morning a group of men traveling from Mexico City to Los Angeles were held up temporarily by the Department of Homeland Security as they moved through customs and immigration at Houston’s William P. Hobby Airport.
The problem? An officer found sheet music in their luggage.
The travelers are members of the Coro Gay Ciudad de México (Gay Men’s Chorus of Mexico City). In L.A. as guests of the Gay Men’s Chorus of Los Angeles, the group’s itinerary for this week is jam-packed with rehearsals, sightseeing and a much-anticipated trip to Disneyland.
On Saturday it will perform alongside GMCLA and the Mariachi Arcoiris de Los Angeles at the Alex Theatre in Glendale in the opening concert of GMCLA’s 40th season.
GMCLA is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization and all of the members of Coro Gay Ciudad de México are volunteers. The Mexican choir’s trip was underwritten by sponsors including Southwest Airlines, who covered its airfare. The group is also being welcomed to Los Angeles by a host committee that includes actor and philanthropist William Shatner and U.S. Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Kamala Harris.
Yet as has happened to other artists from abroad, the Latin American gay men’s choir fell under the scrutiny of the Department of Homeland Security.
According to Coro Gay Ciudad de México executive director Oscar Urtusástegui, the trouble at the airport Sunday began because one choir member, Jorge Gutierrez, has the same name as an individual suspected of stealing a truck. Gutierrez — a university literature professor — was waiting in an office for his identity to be verified when some of his fellow chorus members started chatting with him about this weekend’s concert.
After overhearing these conversations and discovering the group’s sheet music, Urtusástegui says officers became suspicious that the 52 choir members were coming into the U.S. not as tourists, as their visas indicated, but as paid performers.
In Los Angeles on Sunday afternoon, GMCLA executive director Jonathan Weedman received a phone call from an officer at the Department of Homeland Security in Houston.
“He said they felt ‘these guys’ weren’t being truthful or forthcoming, and they were considering deporting them back to Mexico,” Weedman says.
Weedman told the officer that the men were not being paid to perform, explained the nature of the trip and offered to supply any documents necessary. He also told the officer that Feinstein, Harris and Mayor Eric Garcetti were involved, and that “it would be an international incident if they [deported these men].”
“We talked for 13 minutes while I tried to convince him to let the guys finish their trip and get to Los Angeles,” Weedman says, “and he finally said he was satisfied and they could.”
The Department of Homeland Security did not immediately respond to a call to comment on Monday.
While it is common for artists and musicians to travel from Mexico to the U.S. on tourist visas, that practice may be under increased scrutiny. In January, Mexican artists Dario Canul and Cosijoesa Cernas were en route to L.A. when their visas were confiscated and revoked at the San Francisco International Airport.
Gutierrez and his fellow chorus members were luckier on Sunday. They were able to make their connecting flight out of Houston and arrive in Los Angeles in time to begin concert rehearsals on Monday at noon.
“It is not an easy process to get a visa to go to the United States,” Urtusástegui said in a phone interview from Mexico last week, explaining that 10 members of the chorus who wanted to make the trip were not able to because their visa applications were denied.
Urtusástegui, who volunteers as the organization’s executive director, makes his living managing a travel agency.
Drawing on knowledge from his day job, he encouraged one choir member whose visa application was initially rejected to schedule a second interview.
“He really wanted to go, and he got lucky the second time,” Urtusástegui says. His second interviewer said she made her decision after the choir member explained to her that he had been with his partner for 10 years. “That for her was enough reason to give him the visa. She needed to be sure he had a reason to come back to Mexico.”
Coro Gay Ciudad de México is 5 years old, and Urtusástegui says it is the only choir of its kind in Latin America — one that proudly places the word “gay” in its name. In concerts, he gets choked up when the choir sings his favorite song, “Mexico Lindo y Querido.”
“That song in particular goes directly to my heart always. It talks about how beautiful Mexico is. The translation is, ‘If I die away from [Mexico], please just say that I fell asleep and I want to go back to my roots.’ I’m so proud of being Mexican. I’m so proud of what we are doing. If something were to happen to me outside of Mexico, I would want to be back to Mexico. We all want to go back home after this trip.”
Urtusástegui says that at their last rehearsal in Mexico City, many members of the choir expressed fear about the process of going through customs in the U.S. “They [were] very nervous about it. I have to be honest with you, it is because of what the politics are at the moment towards Mexicans.”
But the effort is worth it, he says, because “it’s a collaboration between these two countries, these two sister cities. We are really neighbors, and we are talking about bringing bridges and not these walls that they are building at the border.”
And, he says, audiences who come on Saturday will benefit from the effort these men put into bringing their music to the U.S.