(A four-part series introducing on our Niñas Arriba scholarship recipients. Written by Sarah Esther Maslin.)
When Marta saw the 13-year-old boy drawing gang symbols on his desk, she didn’t yell at him. She was student teaching in one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in El Salvador and she knew the boy could be the son of a gang member. She didn’t want to end up with a gun to her head.
But the 24-year-old had another reason for gently asking the boy to put his Sharpie away. She saw herself in him. She knew his rough upbringing wasn’t his fault.
Next year, after five years at the Universidad Don Bosco in the San Salvador suburb of Soyapango, Marta will be a certified elementary school teacher. When I met her for coffee and donuts with her longtime friend Vanessa—another Niñas Arriba scholarship recipient—Marta’s dark, serious eyes peeked out from behind choppy shoulder-length hair and rectangular glasses.
“When you’re a kid, you remember everything,” she said. “The bad things more than the good things.”
Marta’s mom didn’t want kids. Still a teenager when she had Marta and Marta’s two brothers, she left them alone for days at a time to go clubbing with men and to visit friends in Chalatenango, the rural province where her family lived.
Marta and her brothers didn’t understand why their mother frequently abandoned them. Sometimes they chased her, running in the streets until they fell behind. They tricked taxi drivers into driving them all the way to Chalatenango, promising that a parent would pay. Upon arrival, three hours and 75 miles later, they opened the doors and ran, leaving the taxi driver penniless and fuming.
But when they found their mom, she told them to go home.
Marta’s father was an alcoholic, in and out of his children’s lives. In 2001, after a magnitude 7.7 earthquake rattled El Salvador and temporarily separated Marta and her brothers, a Social Services agency gave their dad a choice: take full responsibility for his children or give them up for adoption.
He chose to keep his kids. “I’m very grateful for that decision,” Marta said. Her father weaned himself off alcohol and got a job sweeping streets for the city of San Vicente. After school, Marta did her homework in the building where the men kept their brooms.
But when she turned twelve, her body started changing, and the men noticed. “They started making sexual comments, asking for things,” she said. Marta’s father began to look for other childcare options. A friend told him about the Maria Auxiladora Boarding School, which gave scholarships to girls from low-income backgrounds.
When Marta visited, in February 2004, classes had already started. At first she was told there was no room for her. Then: a stroke of luck (or a rule-bending nun). There was room after all.
For the first several months, Marta felt like an outsider. She was the new girl, one of the youngest. The nuns yelled at her for eating with her hands. She had never learned to use silverware.
One day in the laundry room, Marta decided she needed a friend. She spotted a girl who looked older (and presumably kinder) and gave her a bon bon. The friendship offering worked. The girl, Vanessa’s older sister Marilyn, took Marta under her wing.
A few years later, Marta started giving classes to adults who’d never finished school. She discovered that she enjoyed teaching, and the nuns told her she had patience. When she graduated in 2010, she decided to become a teacher.
Now in her last semester of college, Marta has a busy schedule: three full days of class every week and student teaching on her days off. She’s currently teaching in a middle-school classroom in a neighborhood where two rival gangs dispute every inch of ground. “One boy couldn’t cross his own street because it would mean walking into rival territory,” she told me, shaking her head.
Some of her students are already involved with gangs. She has seen baggies of marijuana and pistols in their backpacks. She can’t go to the police—they offer little protection and some work for the gangs—or say anything to the students. “Ver, oir y callar,” she explained, repeating a common gang slogan that means “See, hear, and shut up.”
More than 30 teachers have been killed by gangs in the past several years, in some cases for as little as a bad grade. The threat of violence has led to a decline in the profession. “But teachers quitting just makes the problem worse,” Marta said. For her, students coming from rough backgrounds present opportunities—not liabilities. “When they’re little, you can still mold them,” she said.
She told a story about a seven-year-old girl who bragged about her older brother’s gang tattoos. The little girl talked back, cursed, and refused to follow Marta’s directions—but when she turned in her weekly spelling tests, she always scored 100%. Marta wasn’t surprised. “They try hard in order to escape,” she said.
I asked if she believed her own success came from a desire to “escape.”
“Yeah,” she replied. “And from all my mothers”—the nuns, older students, and volunteers who filled the hole left by her own mother. Now she wants to return the favor and help children who are struggling. “Every responsible adult in their lives helps,” she says.
Join us this Saturday, Aug. 13 at Stateside at the Paramount to help Marta and her fellow Ninas Arriba scholarship recipients reach their dreams! Tickets are almost sold out!
(A four-part series introducing on our Niñas Arriba scholarship recipients. Written by Sarah Esther Maslin.)
Xiomara is twenty-five years old. She’s married to her childhood sweetheart and they have a two-year old daughter. Her husband, a trained mechanic who works full-time in an auto shop, wants to build a house on a small plot of land he owns so the three of them can start a life together.
But Xiomara is a climber.
When she was fourteen, she moved from a backward village in San Vicente to San Salvador with her mother. The move opened the door to a high-school education, and attending the Maria Auxiladora School made Xiomara want to go to college. A scholarship from Niñas Arriba made it happen.
Then she learned she was pregnant.
Like so many working women, Xiomara feared that her peers and teachers would see her as less capable because she had a child. That fear disappeared one afternoon when she was eight months pregnant and a classmate invited her to Burger King. Pink and blue balloons greeted her at the door and a crowd of Economics majors shouted, “Surprise!” Her professor showed up to the baby shower carrying a cake.
At first, Xiomara didn’t know how to juggle her classes with a newborn baby. After her daughter Ariana was born in October 2013, she started doing her homework late at night, but she’d lose focus every time the baby woke up.
Eventually, Xiomara learned to study more efficiently—prioritizing assignments, working quickly, and blocking out distractions.
“I couldn’t hole up in the library with friends for hours anymore,” she said. But having less-than-perfect working conditions has prepared Xiomara for a job in the real world. And having Ariana has given her something to fight for.
When I met the two of them at the university one morning, Ariana, in pigtails, wore her mother’s university ID on a lanyard around her neck. In the library—just one big room with a couple dozen bookshelves and a computer cluster—Ariana presented the ID to the security attendant.
Outside, students chatted on benches and gathered at picnic tables, textbooks spread out in front of them. Xiomara pointed out the new Economics wing—a block-like building painted blue, green and yellow with orange Z-shaped staircases jutting out from each end.
As we ate pupusas in the student cafeteria—Xiomara’s scholarship includes a daily food budget—we chatted about Xiomara’s hopes for the future. She wants to get a job at a big corporation, perhaps a car dealership or a technology firm—somewhere where hard work is rewarded by the chance to climb within the company. Quotas excite her; so do the bonuses that come with them.
It was easy to forget what was happening beyond campus walls. July 27, the day before we met, was one of the most violent days since El Salvador’s twelve-year civil war. Gangs called a countrywide bus strike, in an effort to destabilize the government, and over the course of 24 hours, seven bus drivers were murdered.
Meanwhile, thousands of Salvadorans had no way to get to work. They flagged down pick-up trucks, cramming in like cattle, clutching each other for balance as the trucks sped down the highway. The few busses that continued to operate were packed with passengers willing to risk a stray bullet in order to get to their jobs and classes.
Xiomara, Vanessa and Ariana were among them. In Soyapango, where they live, gangs collect a weekly extortion tax from every household. Most people pay “la renta” and try to go about their lives without thinking too much.
When Xiomara’s husband moved to San Salvador to be closer to her and Ariana, gang members assaulted him in the auto shop where he worked. After he watched gangsters pilfer the cash register, a gun against his head, he told Xiomara he couldn’t take it anymore. He returned to San Vicente, where the gang presence isn’t as strong.
Every weekend, Xiomara and Ariana take a two-hour bus ride, followed by a series of local buses and pick-up trucks, to see him. But Xiomara is trying to persuade him to move back to San Salvador so she can work in the city when she graduates. There aren’t any corporate jobs in the village where they grew up.
More importantly, Xiomara wants Ariana to go to a bilingual school. She wants her daughter to have the chance to climb even higher.
Exciting news! Xiomara received a US visa to attend the Aug. 13 Niñas Arriba benefit concert in Austin, featuring Sara Hickman and Suzanna Choffel. Come to the show and meet her!
It’s on mah friends! Join us for our most exciting Niñas Arriba College Fund benefit concert to date on Saturday, August 13 at Stateside at the Paramount! Help us celebrate our first college graduate, Xiomara, with powerhouse Austin musicians Sara Hickman and Suzanna Choffel!
We’re also seeking individual and business sponsorships – email me at firstname.lastname@example.org!
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Gina Chavez is a bilingual Latin-folk singer/songwriter who blends the sounds of the Americas with tension and grace. Her latest independent release, Up.Rooted, is a passionate collection of bilingual songs traversing cumbia, bossa nova, vintage pop, reggaeton, and folk combined with dynamic vocals and sharp social commentary.
The album won the praise of National Public Radio (NPR), USA Today, and The Boston Globe, and topped the iTunes and Amazon Latin charts after a feature on NPR’s All Things Considered. She is the 2014 John Lennon Songwriting Contest (JLSC) Grand Prize Winner for her song “Siete-D,” a rock-cumbia-rap mix that explores the delights and dangers of El Salvador from a window on the 7-D, the bus route she rode as a volunteer there in 2010.
Backed by a six-piece band, Chavez has claimed a prominent stake in the Live Music Capital. An eight-time Austin Music Award winner, Chavez and her band swept the 2015 awards, winning Musician of the Year, Album of the Year (Up.Rooted), Song of the Year (“Siete-D”), Best Latin Band, and the Esme Barrera Award for Music Activism and Education, while placing in six other categories. They have shared the stage with Grace Potter, Grammy winners La Santa Cecilia, Latin Grammy winner Gaby Moreno, Mexico’s Carla Morrison, Argentina’s Federico Aubele, Las Cafeteras from L.A., and Austin’s own Grupo Fantasma. In 2013, they performed for Latin rockstar Juanes as one of nine bands nationwide selected for the Dewaristas contest.
Chavez is currently promoting the June 2015 release of the official music video for “Siete-D.” The video – filmed last October in El Salvador — follows Chavez on an exciting cross-country journey to reunite with her former students — young women she considers her Salvadoran sisters and four of whom are able to attend college on scholarships from Niñas Arriba, a college fund co-founded by Chavez and her partner, Jodi Granado, since their volunteer year in 2010. Southern Living and Olay named Chavez one of 11 “southern iconic women who have left a beautiful footprint across the South,” for her continued work in El Salvador.
“Gina Chavez is the 2015 Austin Music Awards Musician of the Year. Enough said. If you get to SX early, you can see her at The Sidewinder Outside on Tuesday, March 15.” [read full article]
“La cantautora de ascendencia mexicana y suiza-alemana, Gina Chávez, lanzó ayer, a través de Youtube, el nuevo video grabado en El Salvador de su canción “Siete D”, un tema basado en la ruta de…” [leer el articulo]
“…when you’re on top of the world, you can pretty much go anywhere. So why not record a jazzy cover of Iron Butterfly’s “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida”?… [read full track premiere]
Much has happened for Gina Chavez since I first saw her at an unofficial SXSW showcase about five years ago: two albums, fan and industry recognition, this year’s Austin Music Award for Austin Musician Of The Year… [watch full concert]
Gina Chavez, who previously won Austin Musician of the Year, appeared on NPR’s Tiny Desk Concert recently and really represented. Below is the whole show, and it’s a wonderful Wednesday pick-me-up… [read full article]
We’re very very happy today to get a chance to hear a wonderful performance from Gina Chavez and her band. She is a multiple Austin Music Award winner; she’s had an amazing life thus far… [listen]
ATX6 today announced its new group of rising Austin musicians that will represent our fair city at North By Northeast (NXNE) and other international festivals this year… [read full article]
Filling the State Theatre with Black Fret donors Saturday night, Gina Chavez debuted the music video for her Austin Music Awards Song of the Year, “Siete-D.” The evening raised almost $12,000 for… [read full article]
I really like this record, it’s produced by one of my favorite producers, Michael Ramos, there in Austin and I think it really captures her essence and her voice. It really feels like she’s gotten to that sweet spot… [listen]
The Grupo Fantasma horns join Chavez on my favorite, a raucous rock-Cumbia-rap mix titled “Siete-D” where we jump on the 7D bus for a ride through El Salvador, a country where Chavez lived and continues to do mission work… [listen]
Gina Chavez’ “Siete-D” wins the Latin category of the John Lennon Songwriting Contest Session 1… [see contest results]
Singer-songwriter Gina Chavez may be a Texan, but on her latest album she reconnects with her Latin roots, singing in both English and Spanish. Up.Rooted blends Latin folk and American pop… [hear full interview]
Bridging two cultures, the Latin songstress feels both out of place and exactly where she belongs…
Nothing short of one artist’s hallmark, this collection embodies Gina Chavez as an artist of her own right… [read full album review]
With Up.Rooted, Gina Chavez has established herself as the Joan Baez of her generation… [read full album review]
Gina Chavez is due onstage at the Austin Music Awards. Right now. Problem is, she’s still at her official South by Southwest showcase on Sixth Street. Fortunately, she’s only blocks from the Convention Center, and adrenaline from a packed, dynamic performance… [read full article]
Swiss/German/Mexican songstress Gina Chavez dives into her Latin roots on her new album, exploring the complexities… [read full article]
Gina Chavez’s Maiz, which streams exclusively at USA TODAY, is sung in Spanish and vocalizes the effects of NAFTA on Mexican immigrants… [read full article]
The result is an album that’s as confident as it is refreshing… [read full album review]
Pride bursts from every track of up.rooted. Fiery Latina Gina Chavez celebrates her musical roots in this… [read full album review]
Her writing doesn’t waste a syllable, and she gets right to heart of the matter – with a voice that knows its way around painful ecstasy… [read full article]
We are glad to announce that award-winning local singer-songwriter, Gina Chavez is back… [listen]
Gina Chavez’s voice stops you in your tracks the first time you hear it. At least that’s how it worked for me when I came upon her performance during South by Southwest a few years ago. She was playing a… [stream full album]
It’s quite possible that Chavez has a monster indie album on her hands. She is equally comfortable singing in Spanish or English and the material is nothing short of gorgeous with songs… [read full show review]
If anybody in Austin is mixing cumbia, bossa nova, reggaeton and old-school Latin pop to better effect than Gina Chavez, we’d love to know about it. This Austin Music Awards winner recently returned from eight months of mission work in Central America to write an irresistible album detailing… [read full article]
Through a journey of dancing beats, hypnotic language and enticing rhythms Chavez’s sound fires up a soulful album that barrels over any and everything… [read full album review]
Joy of Violent Movement – Track Review (1.16.14)
NPR Alt. Latino – Track Featured in Podcast (1.16.14)
PopMatters – Track Premiere/Review (12.3.13)
KUTX 98.9 FM – Radio News (12.12.13)
KOOP 97.1 FM – Radio Interview (1.13.14)
Remezcla – Track Review (12.9.13)
Enchufate – News (12.6.13)
Hot 106.1 FM – Podcast Interview (12.6.13)
BWW Music – News (12.11.13)
Faronheit – Track Post (12.12.13)
Altsounds – News/Track Post (12.13.13)
Nerdy Frames – News/Track Post (12.14.13)
LatinTrends: Introducing Gina Chavez
San Antonio Express-News: Latin rock star Juanes is celebrity judge at Club Rio
ConexionSA: Juanes looking for good songs
Blastro2 (VIDEO): Un encuentro “dulce y fire” con Gina Chavez
Austin Chronicle | Saborcito: Pachanga Latino Music Festival Fusion
Billboard: Intocable, Los Lobos, Carla Morrison Among Headliners for Pachanga Latino Music Fest
PuroPinche: 6th Annual Pachanga Fest (ATX)
The Globe and Mail | Canada: Austin’s Live Music Scene, Interview with Gina Chavez
Wanderless Austin: Austin Free Week, Austin Vida Showcase
Joy of Violent Movement – Track Review (1.16.14)
In 2009, Gina Chavez and Jodi Granado left their comfy lives in Central Texas for cold showers and chicken buses in Central America; to live out of a suitcase in El Salvador, where volcanoes and poverty loom large; to teach dramatic teenage girls in a gang-dominated barrio for eight months. They struggled, laughed, loved and received lots and lots of hugs.
But the mission didn’t end when they landed stateside in the Summer of 2010. Gina & Jodi immediately established Niñas Arriba, a college fund that offers full scholarships to a private, Catholic university for girls they lived with in Soyapango.
“Study after study has taught us that there is no tool for development more effective than the education of girls and the empowerment of women.” – Kofi Annan, Former United Nations Secretary-General
Donations directly fund low-cost, high-quality education for young women in need. Scholarships cover monthly tuition, academic fees and supplies, food and transportation for four students — Xiomara, Marta, Vanesa and Rosemary — and are sent directly to the university in our students’ names.