WASHINGTON -- Josué Ulises Mercadillo is a 21-year-old double bass player. Like many of his fellow musicians and singers in the Don Bosco Youth Symphony and Chorus, music is truly his outlet; Mercadillo comes from some of the most violent and gang-infested neighborhoods of San Salvador, El Salvador.
“I never, ever imagined I would be doing this when I joined the orchestra two years ago,” he said during a recent concert tour in the Washington, D.C. area.
Before joining the orchestra, Mercadillo's musical training was “a little guitar picking,” but then he moved on and now relishes what he described as the elegant sound of the double bass.
He and his musical companions played to packed houses on their tour that included concerts at The Kennedy Center and the World Bank.
“Genial, simplemente genial (Awesome, simply, awesome),” the young Salvadoran said of last week's concert tour.
The orchestra and chorus take their name from the 19th century Catholic priest Don Bosco who was canonized in the 1930s and is considered the patron saint of underprivileged children. They were started five years ago as a way to help marginalized youth stay away from gangs and other nefarious activities, said the Rev. José “Pepe” Morataya, a Catholic priest who co-founded the group.
“These kids come from 60 public schools in high-risk areas that are sometimes separated by rivalries and competition and by the sad reality of our gangs, but in this endeavor we are one,” said Morataya, who is originally from Spain but has worked in El Salvador or 30 years.
The musicians’ and singers’ days in the U.S. presented a different picture of Central American children than has been seen recently by Americans.
About this time last year, media were filled with the faces of children riding the atop train cars, trudging through desert scrub along the U.S.-Mexico border, crowded into U.S. border facilities and as victims who succumbed to the perils of their long journeys. They are not seen as much now, but many are still in the U.S. held in immigration detention jails.
The musicians’ and singers’ ages range from 8 to 21, and even the orchestra director and music teachers are young: none are over 25.
Their varied repertoire includes classics from Handel, Verdi, Schubert and Mozart, but also jazz, Celia Cruz and Cuban mambo music.
“When we put a musical instrument in human hands, and one can see how you can express feelings through it, a child changes both inside and out,” Morataya said.
“They find the hidden treasure they didn’t know they had, they have a sense of security, their self-confidence grows, their personality matures, and they all have big smiles. All because of a musical instrument,” he said.
Alexander Mejías Villafranco, 18, has been with the orchestra for almost a year.
“When we put a musical instrument in human hands, and one can see how you can express feelings through it, a child changes both inside and out,” said one of the group's co-founders. "They find the hidden treasure they didn’t know they had."
“Unfortunately the entire country is violent these days, but music is a way to express oneself in a positive way. You can have all kinds of feelings when you do music, but it’s all in a positive way,” Mejías said.
“This is the first time I’ve ever been to the United States. My parents are so happy and so proud. This is so nice,” he said, looking around the enormous sun-filled atrium at the World Bank headquarters in downtown Washington.
Joseline Natalie Noboa Galeas is 16 years old and is the only female double bass player in the orchestra.
“Honestly, I don’t like instruments that make loud noises, and the double bass has a nice deep sound. Very elegant,” she said, adding, “We are having a great time. Washington is such a beautiful city and everyone has been so friendly. We feel right at home.”
The entire group stayed with local families for most of their stay to save money. Their concerts were free but the group has been raising money through a website to pay for their trip and others to come.
“We borrowed $25,000 to pay for all the visas and expenses for the orchestra and the chorus, the chaperones, and the teachers,” said music coordinator Daniel Ayala.
In fact, only half of the 550 members could come to Washington, because bringing everyone would have been prohibitively expensive.
“But it’s all for a good cause. This is a marvelous experience for the kids. They get to see another culture, another way of life, try different foods. It’s an eye-opener,” Ayala said.
Ayala, a classical guitarist who was one of the group’s first music teachers, said the idea for the orchestra came from trying to find the positive out of a negative situation.
“San Salvador unfortunately has been one of the areas most affected by crime and violence. The arts are an excellent way not only for youth to do something productive and positive with their free time, but also learn values through music. Music teaches harmony, how to listen, when to be silent, how to be respectful of others. An orchestra can’t function if we’re all playing and talking at the same time, right?” Ayala said.
Most of the kids had never played a musical instrument before joining the group and taking lessons, says Humberto López, Director for Central American programs at the World Bank, which is overseeing a $1 million grant from Japan Social Development Fund that was set up to establish the orchestra and pay for instruments and music teachers.
“Our mission (at the World Bank) is to eliminate poverty, and we look at what are the obstacles to eliminating poverty: crime and violence, which go hand in hand,” Lopez said.
“With high rates of crime and violence, obviously there won’t be economic growth, and without economic growth you don’t have the kinds of jobs that give these kids an opportunity for a good future. This is a program to counteract the temptations of the streets that lead to crime and violence. And their musical talent is unparalleled,” he said.
The group has a standing invitation to tour and play in California next year, and they talk about touring Europe soon. Ayala said he hopes to bring everyone the next time around.
“God willing, I’ll be back,” said Josué, his eyes twinkling. “You bet I will.”