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Safe Passage through Music for the Children of Armonia Cuscatleca, El Salvador
Laura Hassler, Founder/Director of Musicians Without Borders, in conversation with Pablo Mendez Granadino, Founder/Director of Armonia Cuscatleca
Looking back, Pablo is sure it was the all-night music-making that inspired him.
Born in war-time El Salvador, Pablo Mendez Granadino grew up in Los Angeles after his parents had fled from their village, San Pedro Perulapán. There had been musicians in his family for generations; he studied violin as a child and taught for five years at L.A.’s Harmony Project, an El Sistema–based music project for children from underserved communities. Chances to return to El Salvador to see his extended family were few and far between; when he went back to San Pedro in June 2015, it had been 15 years since his last visit. He was 30 years old.
San Pedro Perulapán, about an hour’s drive from the capital, San Salvador, is a beautiful rural town that relies heavily on local agriculture. It is the hub of a municipality that includes 17 smaller “cantones.” The town’s green, scenic beauty belies its reputation as the most violent municipality in El Salvador: violent gangs, the legacy of a long and bitter civil war, rule much of the region.
By chance, Pablo’s visit coincided with San Pedro Perulapán’s annual celebration of its patron saint, marked by two weeks of festivities: carnival rides and food, musical performances, clowns, parades, and dancing. Pablo especially noticed the participation of a small marching band that began every day with musical wake-up calls at 4 a.m. and then played continuously, to the delight of the villagers, until the last person standing requested one last song around midnight. How could they keep going like that for a span of two weeks? It was surely not for the pay, which would have been minimal. And what about the villagers, dancing and singing from morning to night?
Pablo realized that his village loved music, and that those few local musicians were dedicated to providing it for their neighbors. He also realized that there was no place for the village’s children to learn music: San Pedro Perulapán had no music school. As a Sistema teacher dedicated to bringing music to underprivileged kids, Pablo formed an idea—and a mission.
He returned to Los Angeles and met with Myka Miller, director of the Harmony Project. Myka was inspired and offered to help, as did Pablo’s family members in both San Pedro and California. The Harmony Project donated instruments. With the help of the Salvadoran Consulate, Pablo set up meetings between the town’s mayor, the Salvadoran Ministries of Education and Culture, the director of the local school, and other town leaders to discuss the logistics of the program and to prepare the first wave of young children to become the school’s first students.
In 2016, Pablo moved from Los Angeles to San Pedro Perulapán with 40 donated instruments and some start-up funding raised by friends and supporters in L.A. Armonia Cuscatleca (AC) began with 34 students and one teacher/director/administrator—Pablo—supported by a few local volunteers. Pablo taught violin, viola, cello, and bass. Within six months, he was conducting a children’s orchestra and being invited to perform in San Pedro and beyond, including in San Salvador for the nation’s president. Seeing firsthand the music project’s benefits to the town, including a decrease in violent incidents, San Pedro’s mayor was one of its strongest supporters, contributing monthly funding to help it survive and grow.
In early 2017, Pablo was invited by the Ministry of Education to join a new initiative, Soy Música! (I Am Music!), to bring Salvadoran music teachers together with schools in a nationwide effort to protect the children of El Salvador from the culture of violence that surrounds them. The Ministry’s international partner for this new project was Musicians Without Borders, who helped to train 100 Salvadoran music teachers and cultural leaders to use their musical skills to increase children’s feelings of safety and community, and to shift children’s environments to a culture of nonviolence through music.
Pablo joined Soy Música! and, as Musicians Without Borders learned of the achievements of Armonia Cuscatleca, a new partnership was born. Musicians Without Borders helped Pablo to attain longer-term funding for Armonia Cuscatleca, and his own vision for his work with children through music was enriched by MWB’s program.
Today, Armonia’s program combines formal Western orchestral practice with community music workshops that celebrate the importance of movement, sound, and creativity, and the positive effects they can have on children’s ability to empathize, connect, and be part of an inclusive community. These workshops range from warm-up activities like breathing, movement, and simple meditation to European-style violin training, music theory, and creativity and songwriting classes.
Meanwhile, the program has gone regional: the school itself is at the safe, welcoming center of town, while classes have expanded to reach communities that were once inaccessible because of poor infrastructure and gang activity. Somehow, the project’s musicians, traveling with four-wheel drive along muddy tracks, are allowed safe passage by local gangs.
The program that began with only one person now has five teachers offering strings, guitar, and piano lessons, an administrative/financial team, and volunteers. AC has served over 300 children and adolescents in two different departments of El Salvador. Many of the older students are growing to become assistants and teachers in the program.
When asked for an inspiring story, Pablo told this one: “One of our first-year students, José Manuel Portillo, is now working with Armonia Cuscatleca as a violin teacher and music leader. At just 17 years old, José Manuel is the lead teacher of beginning violinists at two of our sites, San Pedro Perulapán and el Rodeo, serving 25 students in the two locations.”
Sharing and passing on leadership, investing in the futures of young people, believing in the power of music to inspire… Armonia Cuscatleca is changing lives and bringing new opportunities to the children of San Pedro Perulapán—so that someday, they too can experience the joy of all-night music-making.
To learn more about Armonia Cuscatleca, please write to firstname.lastname@example.org.