Members of the youth symphony orchestra rehearse at Polígono Industrial Don Bosco, located in a crime-ridden area of San Salvador, El Salvador. CNS photo/Edgardo Ayala

Salvadoran youths find music provides path to escape cycle of violence

By  Edgardo Ayala, Catholic News Service
  • October 28, 2014

SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador - Eleven-year-old Jamin Diaz is finding that music and his participation in a symphony orchestra are giving him the chance to steer clear of violence that plagues his country.

Jamin is one of 240 students in the orchestra whose members come from poor families and public schools marked by gang feuds.

"Instead of walking down the wrong path, being in the orchestra teaches us about symphonic music, culture and, most importantly, about not to waste our childhood," Jamin told Catholic News Service.

Jamin plays clarinet in the orchestra and is in the seventh grade at Monsenor Basilio Plantier Primary School, in the crime-ridden barrio of San Esteban.

El Salvador ranks among the most violent countries in Latin America, with a rate of 41 murders per 100,000 inhabitants, according to the 2013 Global Study on Homicide published by the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime. Many murders in El Salvador are attributed to the country's two main gangs, the Mara Salvatrucha and Barrio 18, whose members often lurk in schools looking for new members.

The symphony orchestra is a project launched in 2011 by Salesian Father Jose Maria Moratalla Escudero, president of the Education and Work Foundation.

Father Moratalla, known as Father Pepe, has supported young people in the program since 1992. They also are part of Poligono Industrial Don Bosco, a technical school where young people learn practical skills for employment in various industries.

The World Bank donated $1 million to start the project. Immediately $300,000 was invested in high-quality musical instruments, including a grand piano, a luxury in El Salvador.

"We must strive for excellence, without quality there is no orchestra. ... Our instruments and our students' training must be as good as any other top music school in the world," Father Moratalla told Catholic News Service.

The students participating in the orchestra as well as 250 others chosen for a choir were selected from more than 40 San Salvador schools. Father Moratalla said the music program gives children from poor families the opportunity to escape the cycle of violence and build a more hopeful future.

"It has been fantastic to drive this effort as a means of preventing violence," he said.

Alejandro Lopez, 18, who plays trumpet in the orchestra and is a student at Mercedes Quinteros School in the La Rabida neighborhood north of San Salvador, understands the importance of ending violence.

"My school is in a violent and complicated area, as are many others in the country, and many of my friends are involved in gang activities," he said. "But music for me has given me the chance to try to be a good man."

During a rehearsal in the heart of Comunidad Iberia, a tough barrio controlled by gangs where the orchestras is headquartered, Lopez began playing "Carmina Burana" by the German composer Carl Orff and moved on to "Ritual Fire Dance" by Spanish composer Manuel de Falla.

"Musically, the orchestra has made great strides. We are playing a standard repertoire for the level we have," said Diego Hernandez, the 25-year-old music teacher.

Hernandez joined the project as a music instructor candidate and took lessons via Skype with teachers from conservatories in Spain. The Spaniards also traveled to El Salvador for a week to evaluate the candidates.

"I think projects like this can influence the reality of the country. A more educated person, one who can think, who can feel the spirit of art, is hardly going to try to harm someone else," Hernandez said.

Father Moratalla said the program guarantees jobs, "so that youth and children will not need to make the trip to the American dream."

In the 1980s, thousands of Salvadorans fled to the United States because of a civil war that left 70,000 people dead by the time it ended in 1992. Today, the exodus continues.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security reported Oct. 9 that more than 16,400 unaccompanied Salvadoran children were apprehended at the border with Mexico during the fiscal year ending Sept. 30. The figure represents a 174 percent increase over same period a year earlier.

"We are trying to ensure that these young people don't have to migrate and, instead, get a decent work in El Salvador," Father Moratalla said.

He said the phenomenon of migration is complex and that the orchestra project, while ambitious, cannot address a nationwide problem.

Father Moratalla hopes to expand the program to include academies in ballet, theater, fine arts and other areas of music. He is seeking funding to complete the long-term project.

"It's a worthwhile project for children and young people of this country," he said, adding that they were looking for "someone who believes in them in this country."

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