Hasiel Mateos, 18, has been learning cello for the past seven years. The program helped him to cope with his father's death from COVID-19.
Juarez City has a reputation for drug cartel violence. Violinist Jove Garcia is on a mission to change this isn't something positive by running an after-school program that teaches 250 children instruments or how to sing in a choir, reports NBC News. The youth orchestra is called Orquesta Sinfonica Esperanza Azteca, or Aztec Hope Symphony Orchestra. It mainly runs with donations from local businesses and secondhand instruments. The students range from 7 to 18 years and their main goal is to keep the children safe and to provide them an opportunity to better their lives.
Garcia said, "Music saves lives," which is what the group has been aiming for. "The gangs, they start doing drugs, drinking and even getting killed, so I think the most important thing of this program is that we're saving lives," he explained. The children's program began in 2008 when Juarez was given the title of the deadliest city in the world due to feuding drug gangs. Reportedly, about 1,587 people were killed and the murder rate kept rising. In 2010, the police reported 3111 homicides. "People lived in fear," said Garcia, as members of organized crime displayed the bodies of their victims on the streets.
However, for Garcia, the inspiration to start teaching music came from the documentary "Tocar y Luchar" ("To Play and Strive"), he said. The film is about a Venezuelan music educator and activist, Jose Antonio Abreu, who created choirs and orchestras to help children in his country.
He started by teaching in a classroom which he rented with donations. They were about 60 students who learned string instruments like violin, cello, viola and double bass. Soon, the Mexican education department came to know about the program's success and made it a part of a national chain of federally funded orchestras for kids in need. It helped Garcia to rent more places and increase the number of students to 500.
Then the pandemic hit and just before Christmas 2020, Mexico's education secretary laid off 700 teachers of the Esperanza Azteca orchestras and stopped funding the program. "For those of us with kids, it was terrible not to be able to afford presents," said Garcia. He sought help from his father's boss, Daniel Dominguez, owner of an air conditioning factory. He created space for an impromptu music classroom on the floor of his factory, Flutec, so the kids could still have music classes.
Garcia then collaborated with other local entrepreneurs to continue funding the orchestra as much as they could. The children now practice 15 to 20 hours a week at a private school that provides Garcia with a rental space at a discount so he can keep the instruments there and teach classes.
One of the students, Hasiel Mateos, 18, has been learning cello for the past seven years. The program helped him to cope with his father's death from Covid. "My father loved for me to play, and I play like he's listening to me every time I play, so that makes me better," Mateos shared. His mother added that it helped her son to learn discipline and teamwork. He has been accepted to medical school and will be a freshman in August.
The program also has a choir and the soloist, Renata Arvizo, goes to El Paso to attend school and later returns to take voice lessons. According to her, it's a program that bridges the gap between Mexicans and Americans. The students also sometimes get the opportunity to perform in the US. They have performed in Washington, DC, for the Cinco de Mayo celebrations sponsored by the Mexican Cultural Institute.
They have also performed in El Paso with the youth orchestra there. Garcia calls it "the bridge." "We need more bridges than walls," he said.