Tijuana seeks hope through music
Hector is a shy, chubby kid.
With a sure step, he enters the room at the Musical Arts Center in Tijuana where a crowd of over a hundred people have their eyes upon him. Most of them are kids like him.
“Bach was a great composer, who thought joy was a feeling more powerful than life itself, so when he had the chance to write a score —a story written in musical notes—, he wrote it about what joy means” he says.
He then takes a deep breath and starts to play on his violin. He plays with more heart than mastery and as he finishes he is met by applause from his audience.
Héctor lives in Cerro Colorado, a colonia in the outskirts of Tijuana, a city constantly associated with violence, drug traffic, gangs and social exclusion.
He is one of the first participants in a program called Community Orchestras, a musical education program similar to the one in Venezuela, hoping to create stronger communities by teaching music to kids.
The program is managed by the Musical Arts Center, home of the Baja California Orchestra.
In just two years, it now has over 300 children playing music throughout the state.
“The program has the clear aim of keeping children busy in the evenings, because most of these kids go to public school and both of their parents’ work, so it was important to keep them off the street from 2:30 until 6:30” said music teacher Silvino Octarula.
The program started in late 2008, at a period of unprecedented violence in the city.
“Many of the kids had just started classes when the violence started, and the parents worried, what could they do in such an unsafe city? They decided to keep them in the orchestra, because after their house, the orchestra was the safest place for them” he remembers.
Community Orchestras have started in neighborhoods where thousand of immigrant families arrive each year to live and work in the factories, where salaries average $70 dollars a week for 6 days of hard work, there are no roads, no police and schools are overcrowded.
That is precisely the kind of fertile ground for criminal groups to enroll their street vendors and gunmen, amid poverty and sub-employment.
“We are convinced education can be a fundamental tool towards social change” said Baja California Orchestra director Eduardo García Barrios.
“Getting to be part of an orchestra allows for powerful social bonds to form, learning about solidarity amongst peers, to get a sense of collective commitments. You learn to listen, to get along, to function as one, and these are important extra-musical values that can be easily applied in an orchestra” he explains.
For Barrios, it is crucial to remember Latin America has a history of steep social differences, where culture and art are goods that only a few can access.
“Now everybody levels it as a miracle, but in reality it took 35 years for the Venezuelan phenomenon to happen” Barrios believes, “this is the clearest example of a good alternative that doesn’t come from Europe, other ways to learn and make music that have been very generous and have enormous meaning for our countries, our cities where we live amongst huge cultural limitations.”
The key is to sensitize kids through art while teaching them a set of abstract spiritual values that go beyond music to touch upon feelings and emotions.
“So what we have here is a powerful tool, the fact is it makes people more responsible, more disciplined, people with a sense of community, responsibility, solidarity and at the same time you have sensitive people who enjoy more” says Barrios, adding the key will be a sustained effort.
For many families these benefits are already felt.
María Helena Hernández is the mom of 10 year old Hugo. Every day, she brings him to practice and stays outside during practice. She is full of tales of better grades, better behavior but above all, she is part of a community of parents.
“We have a knitting club amongst the moms, and we are teaching each other different crafts, we share activities and we share being proud of our kids, who know are learning to play a musical instrument,” she says, “We are learning about music we didn’t know existed, and doing that with your kids is so motivating.”