Nearly 1,000 children and teens who live in violent, crime-ridden areas of El Salvador have turned to the Don Bosco Youth Symphonic Orchestra as an alternative to a life of drugs and conflict.
The orchestra is financed by a $1 million grant from the Social Fund for the Development of Japan, administered by the World Bank. It is run by Spanish Salesian Father Jose Maria Moratalla Escudero, known as Father Pepe, who is president of the Salvadoran Education and Work Foundation.
Formed more three years ago, the orchestra made its debut in San Salvador last year. The young musicians range in age from 8 to 20 and are from various public schools located in neighborhoods plagued by gang violence. Twenty-five year old Bryan Cea, himself from a troubled neighborhood, directs the orchestra.
El Salvador is one of the most violent countries in Central America, along with Honduras and Guatemala. According to El Salvador president Sanchez Ceren, the murder rate in the country has increased from six per day in 2013 to 10 per day in 2014.
Gang violence is so intense that even living in or visiting an area controlled by a rival gang can mean death.
For this reason, the orchestra project is so important, as it gives young people a peaceful alternative for learning, Fr. Pepe said.
In statements to CNA, he noted that gangs tend to use public schools as a base for selling and hooking kids on drugs.
“So this music project is fantastic because it keeps kids occupied all day long. First during school hours and later during their free time, giving them the chance to freely be in an environment where they can get the kind of music classes that most interest them,” he explained.
Carlos Palma, 20, plays the violin and says the project is positive cultural experience, while Madelin Morales, 15, who plays the flute, says belonging to an orchestra has helped her improve in school and to see life “from a better point of view.”
Jania Ibarra, an analyst with the World Bank, which sponsors the project, said it helps “prevent violence through cultural and musical activities.”
Fr. Pepe said the kids do not see themselves as rivals from different schools or neighborhoods, but as members of the symphonic orchestra. “They are all Salvadorans who are restoring unity,” he commented.
The Salesian priest said he hopes that after the World Bank sponsorship ends, other organizations will step up to help keep the project growing.
“Thank God it is not only being maintained, but we also hope to expand. In fact, we are building a conservatory. None exists in El Salvador,” he said.
Fr. Pepe said he is contact with instructors at a conservatory in Spain about coming to El Salvador to train new instructors who would teach there.
In November of this year, the symphonic orchestra is scheduled to travel to Washington, D.C., to play concerts at the Kennedy Center and other venues.
It is also planning a large musical – including nearly 3000 actors – on the life of St. John Bosco, with music and lyrics composed by the orchestra members themselves.
“Let's say it's a gigantic explosion of a vitality that seemed to be dormant in the children, teens and young people of El Salvador and that thanks to this project is being awakened,” Fr. Pepe said.