Moorpark College kicks off the yearlong celebration of its 50th anniversary with El Bracero — A Mariachi Opera. A fusion of live mariachi music, ballet folklorico and operatic staging, El Bracero will take the stage for one night only at the Moorpark College Performing Arts Center on Friday, Aug. 26.

Written by Rosalinda Verde and directed and produced by Miguel Orozco, it is set in the 1950s at the Campo Buena Vista in Oxnard, one of the largest bracero programs in the country. The program hired thousands of Mexican men to work legally in the United States, mostly as agricultural laborers. The braceros (a term borrowed from Spanish meaning “a man who works with his arms”) lived in camps where they faced many hardships, including a feeling of isolation and being cut off from their culture. Mariachi music was an important part of life in the bracero camps because it helped the men feel connected to their lives and families back home. It also gave voice to their struggles and emotions.

The story of El Bracero centers around Noe (Javier Lopez Gomez), a man who tells his grandson (Jonathan Lopez Garcia) about his life as a bracero in the Campo Buena Vista. As Noe recounts his struggles, the audience is transported back to the camp. Lopez plays the younger Noe and we see what a bracero’s life was like through his eyes. At times the action freezes, and mariachi music rises and a singer takes the stage.

The music is performed by the local band Mariachi Aguilas de Oxnard. “They are one of the best groups in Southern California,” Orozco says, “We are very proud [to have them].” He echoes that sentiment for Ballet Folklorico Mestizo of Oxnard College, which also performs in the production. As in any opera, music and dance play starring roles. “The acting,” continues Orozco, “sets up the action, and the songs capture the emotion and help drive the story.” Bernardo Perez, board trustee, Ventura County Community College District, adds that the music “poignantly communicates the struggles encountered by the farmworkers.” 

El Bracero debuted in its current form at Oxnard College in January 2016. Orozco first saw the opera several years ago when it was produced outdoors in Visalia. “The minute I saw it I knew it was something that I wanted to bring to Ventura County and stage in a theater.” Bringing the production indoors allowed Orozco to heighten the audience’s experience with certain operatic elements, such as a scrim, which the band performs behind, and a spotlight that illuminates the singer. It also made it possible to add English subtitles.

The production uses a mostly local cast and crew that have presented the opera in several locations — from Oxnard College to East L.A. College — and it has resonated with audiences everywhere it went. It connects with people whose family members were braceros, as well as with people who were unfamiliar with the bracero program before seeing the production. Whatever the case, Orozco says that he’d like people to walk away from it with the understanding of the impact the bracero program had on Ventura County as well as “a feeling of gratitude to the braceros, who endured many hardships. They hold a special place in the history of California.”

Next up for Orozco is Ay, Chihuahua! a mariachi musical. “It is more lighthearted,” Orozco says. “It transports you back to the innocence of Mexico’s Golden Age.” Orozco was inspired to create it after he saw a production of Oklahoma! Ranchero music will be at the heart of the musical and many of the same cast and crew from El Bracero will be a part of it. Keep an eye out for it. Orozco plans to debut Ay, Chihuahua! in December in Oxnard.

El Bracero — A Mariachi Opera plays Friday, Aug. 26, at 7:30 p.m. at the Moorpark College Performing Arts Center, 7075 Campus Road, Moorpark. For tickets and more information call 553-4760 or visit www.moorparkcollege.edu/community/foundation/events.