Across the world, members of the music for social change movement hold a special connection to Venezuela, and many feel great concern for the astoundingly difficult circumstances its people have faced in recent years. The ongoing crisis remains massively under-reported in the media and under-funded by the global community. Brookings Institution calls this “the largest and most under-funded refugee crisis in modern history”; Venezuela is on track to overtake Syria as the country with the most displaced people, with 5.4 million and counting. Meanwhile, the international community has committed significantly less funding to Venezuelans. Four years into the Syrian crisis, $7.4 billion in international aid ($1,500 per refugee) had been amassed, while at a similar point in Venezuela’s crisis, only $580 million has been spent ($125 per person).
The massive gaps in the global community’s care of Venezuelan people exist both at home and abroad. Even at the best of times, migration presents people with significant material, cultural, and emotional challenges. Venezuelan migrants also face growing hostility from their host societies, as countries are not receiving the international support they need to integrate these unprecedented numbers of people.
Despite the challenges they face, Venezuelan musicians all over the world play on. For the past year and a half, I have had the privilege of researching the musicians of the Venezuelan diaspora, to better understand what role music-making plays in the lives of El Sistema-trained musicians post-migration and to create greater awareness and action in response to the crisis in Venezuela.
My research on the Venezuelan musical diaspora has revealed that musical practices have provided an inextinguishable source of identity for migrants. Musicians report that music has given them skills, such as perseverance and commitment, to help them survive displacement and migration. Furthermore, it equips them with a sense of identity that allows them to transcend the material, social, and emotional challenges of migration. Their identity as musicians remains steadfast and provides a personal sense of wholeness.
How have these migrants, many living in extremely challenging circumstances, managed to remain so connected with their musical identities? At least in part, it’s because in their new settings, they have managed to find one another and create ensembles that resonate with the El Sistema ensembles they grew up with. These ensembles have emerged all over the world. Many of them integrate migrants with locals or other groups; sometimes, they involve a training/music education aspect in line with El Sistema’s original goals. Some examples of such ensembles include the Bolivar Phil (Florida), Música para la Integración (Chile), Roraima Phil (Peru), Latin Vox Machine (Argentina), and Fundimusicol (Columbia). The musicians I spoke with emphasized that through orchestral practices, they had the chance to maintain their own sense of self while collaborating with other groups.
A young Venezuelan hornist named Efren, now living in Santiago, explained to me that the values he had learned through his training in El Sistema—such as hard work, perseverance, and discipline—prepared him to overcome life’s challenges, especially those of migration. Elfren personally feels the agency he has derived from his musical career; as he told me, “I have learned a lot from great teachers: that one must be focused on what one wants to achieve, and also that one must also work hard to get it… In my case, music is my life, and nobody can tell me that I cannot be a musician. Only I have the ability to decide my future.” For Efren, his musician identity is connected to a set of values and skills that guide him toward self-improvement and agency, regardless of life’s challenges.
A story published in the magazine El Tiempo about Venezuelan musicians in Colombia quoted Luis Farfán, a Venezuelan hornist in Bogota who had to sell his horn in order to purchase a motorcycle for a job he needed to survive. He explained, “That day, I stopped being me. I had to eat, but my dream was to make music, to live from it like in Venezuela. Losing my horn was losing my essence, what I am. You cannot imagine the sadness this means.” Eventually, Farfán was able to buy back his horn; he described that moment as the time he was “resurrected.” “Being in the orchestra,” he said, “is to feel like a musician again. There is no happier time…It doesn’t matter if I pedal a thousand hours in the sun or in the rain, because here I remember that I am not a messenger, that I came to be a musician.” For Luis, his “musician” identity is of existential importance: it is his soul, his person.
This sentiment was echoed by Eva Moreno, who now lives in Florida and founded an ensemble called the Bolivar Phil, composed of Venezuelan musicians in the area. “When we got here, many of us just had to take a job, any job,” she explained to me, “but my soul was empty. I was missing the feeling of self as a musician—it’s like being on the sea and you need a life raft. Music is the life raft.”
One might speculate that the original aims and practices of El Sistema in Venezuela have taken on a new, concrete meaning in light of the circumstances faced by many Venezuelan musician migrants. In El Sistema’s tradition, the first act is always to build ensembles—because from ensembles will flow the construction of musical identity and ultimately of social and civic identity. Now, Venezuelan musicians forced to leave their homes are remembering that fundamental first act: they are building ensembles through which they can sustain their cherished musical identity.