It has now been three weeks since my Guatemalan friends returned to El Tejar, and I’m just beginning to gain the perspective that a bit of distance provides. Our time together in North Carolina was rich, dense and fulfilling, and I know that I am not the only one who was deeply moved by it. It was powerful for the Guatemalans, and also for the North Carolinians who got to meet them. To quote Handy, the best English speaker in a group with very little English, the trip was “very more awesome.”
The students from El Tejar came up to the U.S. on October 14. They drove to Guatemala City and got on a plane to Atlanta—no small feat in itself, given that none of them had left the country before, and only the school director, Silvia, had been on an airplane. The following week was filled with appearances at middle and elementary schools, a full weekend of performing at the Lake Eden Arts Festival (LEAF), and a show at Duke University the night before they left.
This band, Las Estrellas Musicales de El Tejar (the Musical Stars of El Tejar), is the product of a music program begun in 2007 as a partnership between the non-profit organization that I direct, PEG Partners, and LEAF International, the outreach arm of the Lake Eden Arts Festival. The third organizational partner in this project is Child Aid, a California non-profit that supports the elementary school. All three organizations work closely together, and LEAF and PEG have split the costs of the two music teachers’ salaries, and of musical instruments since 2007.
The program has music classes five days each week for the smaller children, but has also given rise to a band for older youth. These older kids play traditional Guatemalan music on a variety of instruments, including mandolins and guitars, bongos and congas, recorders and even marimbas, the signature instrument of Guatemalan music.
And they’re good! Nearly all of the kids play multiple instruments. Their marimba pieces are particularly wonderful, with seven people playing two marimbas simultaneously. Even the music they make on the recorder, though, is impressively intricate. When I learned to play a recorder in elementary school, it involved a bunch of children playing the same melody, badly, on the small, cheap recorders that all looked the same. The Estrellas, on the other hand, play soprano, alto, tenor and even bass recorders, and play them in intricate harmonies and rhythms.
As the folks from LEAF and Child-Aid and we at PEG watched the kids progress over the last five years, it became clear that this is a serious and solid music program. A couple of years ago, Jennifer Pickering from LEAF suggested that it might be time to think about bringing them up to perform in North Carolina, with the centerpiece of the tour being performances at the Lake Eden Arts Festival. Now, two years later, it has happened, and it’s hard to imagine how it could have gone much better than it did.
Along with their busy performance schedule, we took the kids to see bears, snakes, otters and birds of prey at the WNC Nature Center, visited the NC Museum of Natural Sciences, they had home stays in Raleigh and ate dinner in several private homes, including one night with my parents. They played Pachelbel’s Canon in my folks’ dining room and my mother wept (OK, I did too).
We had a particularly fun visit to the Biltmore House, where the kids were treated to the backstage tour by Dini Biltmore Pickering, one of the two heirs to that home. Along with the usual tour, the kids got to climb up on the roof and tour the sub-basement. It was an incredible day. I gathered them on the lawn afterward and asked if they thought that there was any chance that some day they might forget this day. I was not surprised to be met by a chorus shouting “No!”
The kids opened a lot of people’s hearts while they were here. At almost every show they did, people came up afterward with tears in their eyes, sometimes sobbing, simply due to their open hearts, I think. I was prepared for some of that, having been affected that way myself, but there were consequences to the trip that I didn’t expect, as well.
The biggest item in that category is probably the effect that our visit had on Latino kids at North Buncombe Middle School. It’s not always easy to be Latino at a semi-rural school in North Carolina, but when our friends from Guatemala visited, the bilingual students at NBMS were suddenly the coolest kids in the school. Everyone mobbed them in the lunchroom, asking “How do you say ‘I liked your concert!’?,” or “how do you say ‘do you have a dog?’” Everyone wanted to talk with these exotic visitors, and the local Latino kids were the way there. The perceived novelty and importance of my Guatemalan friends spilled all over the local Latinos, and it was amazing to see the effect it had.
We encountered kindness everywhere we went, and I would be remiss in not mentioning the Music Loft in Carrboro, NC in particular, which rented us three guitars for the week — for $40. Not each. All total. That was some beautiful and tangible support. They don’t even normally rent guitars. But they did for us.
My friend Sarah Hipp, who works with LEAF sporadically (when she’s not in Rwanda, where she is currently on a trip to dig wells), spent the week with us helping to drive and manage logistics—speaking of kindness.
The folks at LEAF were extraordinary as well. LEAF also funded the larger part of this trip. The rest was paid for by their various appearances, particularly their show at Duke University, headed up by Claudia Koonz at the Borderwork(s) program, and Fania Franklin at Isaac Dickson Elementary in Asheville.
It was also wonderful to watch some of the Guatemalan kids open up over the time they were here. They had a truly life-changing experience. Sam from Child Aid suggested that this might happen. Child Aid employs lots of Guatemalans in leadership positions there, running their literacy and library programs, and Sam told me that one of the better predictors they have for whether a potential employee will excel is whether or not they have left the country. “You mean because they are more culturally fluent?” I asked, but he said that wasn’t the main thing. Rather, he thought it was because they see more possibility. Their horizons are broader, and they simply think bigger.
When we think about this kind of cultural exchange, though, people from the U.S. often frame it in terms of what we can do for them. That’s part of the equation, as it should be, but it’s not the whole thing. Having spent a week crammed into a 15-passenger van with these friends, I can tell you that they have gifts for us as well. I’m not just talking about their music and their friendship. They also have a whole lot to teach us about community.
This was four adults, three boys and five girls. The students were ages 11 to 18. I never saw any of the kids exclude any of the others. I never even saw cross words spoken between them. I honestly can’t imagine that with a group of kids from the U.S. I hope I can come to understand that way of being before I die, but I have a long way to go, and a whole lot to learn.
El Tejar is an increasingly tough town. There is a great deal of poverty, a steady trade in prostitution, and gang activity has been on the rise in recent years. It’s hard to over-estimate the effect of giving these kids something to dream on and a path toward those dreams. They worked very hard for this trip. For years, in fact. And they went home moved and changed. I hope and believe for the better. They also moved and changed a lot of people here.
Very more awesome indeed.