Bach, Not Bullets: A Youth Symphony Defies Mexico's Drug War

Dec 7, 2010
Exec. Prod. of Franchises & Series. He previously reported for HuffPost, L.A. Daily Journal, and Biloxi Sun-Herald.
A boy plays his violin as part of the Ciudad Juarez youth orchestra. (Photo: Reuters Pictures)

Ciudad Juarez, gripped by a veritable civil war between drug gangs, is one of the most dangerous cities in Mexico. A dozen people a day are killed in the violence. Since 2008, at least 7,200 people have died in the drug-trafficking upheaval.

But one woman—a former heroin addict—is using classical music to keep Juarez's younger generations from falling prey to the drug war.

Alma Rosa Gonzalez hopes that her youth orchestra will keep kids from falling victim to—or joining—one of the killers:

"Just to see a gang member bringing his child to school carrying an instrument means the kid's life has changed. He won't be the same as his father," said Gonzalez, a social worker who started the youth orchestra program in 2005.

According to Reuters, Gonzalez's orchestra is modeled on Venezuela's famed "El Sistema" network of publicly financed youth organizations that play concerts around the world. 

The kids in Gonzalez's orchestra rehearse in a school built on a garbage dump. Two of the school's classrooms recently collapsed, and eight people were massacred at a rehabilitation center up the street. The Mexican Bloods gang dominates the neighborhood.

But, according to Reuters, parents continue to send their kids despite the threats, because the orchestra is one of the few opportunities for productive extracurricular activities in this city of 1.5 million. Near the border with Texas, Ciudad Juarez is smack dab in the middle of the desert, whose citizens rely on low-skill manufacturing jobs making products for the U.S. market. 

Gonzalez is winning a few small battles. On December 19, about 70 children, mostly from impoverished backgrounds, will play a Christmas concert with music by Bach and Handel. 

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