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Displaced choir leader founds refugee orchestra in Chile


Displaced choir leader founds refugee orchestra in Chile

Former choir director Ana Marvez could not stand to see the musical skills of her fellow Venezuelans go to waste in their host country. So, she started an orchestra.
9 March 2021

One of the most wrenching aspects of being forced to leave one’s home is having to give up your profession, says Ana Marvez, a 34-year-old music teacher and choir director who left Venezuela to seek safety in Chile around five years ago.

Ana considers herself lucky. Not only did she find work within weeks of her arrival in the Chilean capital, Santiago, but she also managed to secure a position that was at least tangentially related to her former career – a minimum wage job as a secretary in an arts school.

The same cannot be said of the majority of professional musicians who are among the more than 457,000 Venezuelan refugees and migrants now living in Chile. Most are forced to take any job they can find to get by.

“I was really fortunate… That wasn’t the case with most of my peers,” she said, adding that most of the Venezuelan musicians she knew in Chile were “scraping by any way they could – as cashiers, nannies, security guards, doormen.”

“If you aren’t constantly playing, you lose your skills.”

Venezuela is home to one of the world’s most prestigious music education programmes, with a network of youth orchestras that churn out world-class professional musicians – many of whom are now living abroad. Soon after Ana started at the arts school, she began receiving CVs from other displaced Venezuelan musicians, desperately seeking work. As the CVs stacked up, Ana got to thinking.

“I said to myself, ‘This can’t be. These talents are going to waste,’” she recalled. “As a musician myself, I know that if you aren’t constantly playing, the same thing happens as with athletes – you lose your skills and the years of training.”

On a whim, she took the pile of 30-odd CVs home and started calling the job-seekers.

“I asked them if they would be willing to meet up on weekends to start an orchestra and give music classes,” Ana said. Not only were nearly all of those she rang thrilled to join the nascent project, but many reached out to their own networks and recruited their musician friends.

The “Fundación Música para la Integración,” or “Music for Integration Foundation” was born.

The Music for Integration Foundation Orchestra, led by Venezuelan conductor Simón Arias, performs in Santiago, Chile, in 2019.
The Music for Integration Foundation Orchestra, led by Venezuelan conductor Simón Arias, performs in Santiago, Chile, in 2019.

Now, around 350 musicians – most of them Venezuelan refugees and migrants, while others hail from Colombia, Peru and Mexico, as well as Chile – take part in the project, which includes a symphony orchestra, a choral ensemble, and several music classes for children. While the majority of them are volunteers, giving freely of their time, the Foundation divvies up the fees it receives from the classes, as well as from the more than 100 concerts the group has performed across Chile, to help supplement the musicians’ incomes.

Still, for many of the participants, the benefits of volunteering with the Foundation far outstrip the extra income.

“Many of them were lonely, and being around other musicians helped change that.”

“A lot of them were very lonely, very blue and very depressed, and just being around other musicians helped change that,” said Ana, who has since changed day jobs and now works at the City Hall in the Santiago suburb of Lo Barnechea, devoting evenings, weekends and holidays to her passion project.

“The Foundation has become something of a space for emotional rehabilitation, as they go through the process of adapting to life in Chile.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced the Foundation and its members to adapt yet again. Successive lockdowns meant the group had to cancel its concert line-up, as well as in-person rehearsals, while a reduced schedule of music classes moved online.

Although it is now generating very little income for its members, the Foundation – which receives support from UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency – is still doing its best to provide a safety net to those in the most critical situations.

“We’ve held several fundraisers to be able to buy our musicians food and also so that they can send money to their families back in Venezuela,” said Ana, adding that several of the group’s members have moved in together to cut down on costs.

And while it is not clear when the Foundation will be able to resume its concerts and other in-person activities, Ana and the organization’s all-female board of directors have big plans.

“We have shown the world that women can do it.”

Having seen first-hand the well-being the Foundation has brought to its refugee and migrant musicians, they hope to reach out to musicians from other vulnerable populations, such as the LGBTI community and people with disabilities.

But for the moment, Ana takes pride in how the Foundation has grown into a powerful symbol of the fortitude of displaced people, particularly displaced women like herself.

“As Venezuelan women, we take our leadership skills for granted, and it’s surprising to see that in many places that’s not the perception,” she said.

“We have shown society and the world that we can do it – that a woman who has every disadvantage because of being a foreigner... was able to bring such a beautiful project to fruition.”