How Do You Get Latino Kids Into Classical Music? Bring The Parents


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Photo: Santa Celia Orchestra
Outside the concert hall at Occidental College, in L.A.’s Eagle Rock neighborhood, children are invited to test out the instruments the Santa Cecilia Orchestra will play later. Alexa Media Rodriguez, 8, says she and her family have never before been to an orchestra concert. She heard about the orchestra when some of the musicians visited her school.
“I brought my dad, my stepmom,” she says, “my sister, my brother and my sister’s cousin…”
That’s the thing about this orchestra, says conductor Sonia Marie De Leon De Vega: The children are bringing the parents.
“What’s happening onstage is wonderful,” De Leon De Vega says. But another thing that’s great at our concerts is what’s happening in the audience.”
About 85 percent of the audience is Latino, and spans all ages. They sit mesmerized, pretending to conduct along with De Leon De Vega, her flowing, wavy brown hair bouncing along as she moves the baton. She’s happy to try to replicate the concert-going experience she saw as a guest conductor in other countries.
“You go to the Palacio de Bellas Artes in Mexico City,” she says, “people are there on a Sunday afternoon with an entire family. Grandchildren to grandparents, and I thought, ‘Wow. You just don’t see that back home. You just don’t see it. You see mostly older people. The same thing in Italy.’ And I thought, ‘Wow, I would love for that to exist back home.’”
So in 1992, she founded the Santa Cecilia Orchestra. The 85 musicians are paid professionals who play with other symphonies and in Hollywood studios. De Leon De Vega started with $2,000 of her own money and now has a staff of three. Her orchestra has played in concert halls and amphitheaters and at universities all over her adopted home of Los Angeles.
De Leon De Vega was born in San Antonio, Texas, to a Mexican-American show-business family. Her mother was a dancer, singer and actress, and her father sang and played guitar in a trio.
“He was a wonderful singer, very handsome man also,” she says. “I remember being very little and hiding behind the couch, and pretending to conduct while he was having rehearsal with his fellow musicians.”
When she was 5, De Leon De Vega began playing piano. By then, the family had moved to the Echo Park neighborhood of Los Angeles. She recently went back to her old elementary school and talked to the kids about music.
“I played in this schoolyard and walked these halls,” she says. “Even at that age, I had a really strong feeling to one day come back and make a difference. And I walked down the halls and I thought, ‘I will never forget what this is like, being a child.’”
As a little girl, she says, music was her refuge.
“I was definitely the nerd that the bullies would pick on,” De Leon De Vega says. “I was actually beat up numerous times at this school. I was very shy, very quiet. I just wanted to go back home. And I think music saved me.”
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