Notes of home: A Civic Orchestra of Chicago Venezuelan fellow brings music to migrants

Notes of home: A Civic Orchestra of Chicago Venezuelan fellow brings music to migrants

Lina Yamin and six other musicians found themselves breathing heavily as they held back tears while performing Monday for a special crowd.

The 33-year-old from Venezuela said the musicians, most of whom come from other countries themselves, tried to keep it together as they played a concert for a room of recently arrived migrants.

“When you’re away from home playing music, it makes you miss a lot of things. It makes you remember a lot of things,” she said.

The concert was held in the auditorium of a migrant shelter at the American Islamic College on Memorial Day. The music was comforting to many, who have come to Chicago fleeing economic and political disaster in their countries of origin.

Over 42,000 migrants, mostly from Venezuela, have passed through Chicago in close to two years on buses and planes from the southern border. When they arrive, they often have little room to think of anything but how to survive — how to find a house, file their asylum papers and make enough money to feed their children.

Yamin said she understands this feeling. She moved to the United States seven years ago with her husband to study violin performance at DePaul University.

In their home country, they were part of El Sistema, a state-funded music education program in Venezuela that trains hundreds of thousands of musicians across social classes how to play classical music, among other genres.

El Sistema has been bringing music education to vulnerable communities in Venezuela since 1975. Patricia Abdelnour, former deputy director of internal relations of the organization, said it operates in hundreds of small nucleos, or practice groups that provide safe havens and resources at a neighborhood level.

The music program is touted as one of the most successful in Latin America, despite the crisis in Venezuela brought on by the country’s far-left leader and tanking oil industry.

“In a way, when everything else seems to be failing, the only thing that has kept going has been El Sistema,” Abdelnour said.

Paulina Paulimar, 16, left, smiles next to her mother, Domarys Acosta, 37, both from Venezuela, while watching members of the Civic Orchestra of Chicago perform in a shelter at the American Islamic College on Memorial Day, May 27, 2024, in Chicago. (Armando L. Sanchez/Chicago Tribune)

Yamin joined El Sistema when she was 7 years old and said her participation in classical music gave her a path out of her country in 2017 when tensions and protests against the president were escalating. But she said her adjustment to Chicago was hard.

“At that time, we were so busy studying and working that we actually didn’t give any importance to enjoying music,” she said.

Yamin is now one of 11 participants in the Civic Orchestra of Chicago’s fellowship program, which funds musicians to design and execute an independent project.

She wanted to give the new arrivals — many focused singularly on meeting their own basic needs — the space to “reconnect with themselves” through music.

She coordinated with city officials to find a space inside a shelter and selected eight pieces that combined traditional and classical music styles. The songs were originally meant to be sung, she said, but her former music teacher and Venezuelan cellist German Marcano arranged them for string instruments.

Rachael Cohen, program manager for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s Negaunee Music Institute, said the Chicago Symphony Orchestra is currently looking for more ways to interact with the migrant community in Chicago.

“It’s so special that Lina took that initiative. It’s part of her story too,” Cohen said.

Most of the musicians who performed are also from Latin America. The cellist Omkara Gil and the maracas player Karel Zambrano are from Venezuela. Cuatro player Jose Luis Posada is from Colombia and violist Carlos Lozano is from Mexico. Only the bassist Ben Foerster is from the United States.

Civic Orchestra of Chicago musician Lina Yamin, right, from Venezuela, speaks with a child after members of the orchestra performed in a shelter at the American Islamic College on Memorial Day, May 27, 2024, in Chicago. (Armando L. Sanchez/Chicago Tribune)

The concert started with “Lejania,” a piece composed in 1946 when Venezuelans migrated from the country to big cities.

“More than anything, it’s about melancholy and longing for where you come from,” Yamin said to the audience.

When the music started, a few dozen migrants took videos of the stringed instruments and shakers. Some nodded along.

The second song, “El Norte es una Quimera,” was about a man who moved from Venezuela to New York in the ‘50s and went home after struggling to make it. One song used the familiar sounds of an ice cream seller in Venezuela. Another, “Pajarillo,” combined bits of a traditional Venezuelan dance tune with the classical notes of a fugue.

During the second to last song, “La Llanera,” Domarys Acosta, a 37-year-old mother from Venezuela, stood up in her chair and clapped.

Acosta, who worked at a day care in Valencia, Venezuela, left her country in February to make it to Chicago with her husband and two kids. She said she spends her days asking for money on the streets because she has few options, and doesn’t have time to seek out music.

“It lifted my spirits. A mí me subió el ánimo,” she said.

The concert ended with the Venezuelan national anthem — a slower melody reminding those in attendance of everything they have to be proud of in Venezuela. Some migrants closed their eyes as they listened. 

“It’s been a long time since I’ve felt that pride,” Acosta said. “In my country, we danced all the time.” 

The Venezuelan music tradition is a unique mixture of Indigenous, African and European influences. And the El Sistema program — which has spread classical music to widespread communities — makes it more distinct, said Dr. Pedro Aponte, professor of musicology at James Madison University. 

“We talk about classical music the same way we talk about baseball in this country,” he said.

Yamin lamented that she couldn’t play songs from all genres. But for her, the act of sitting and listening to classical music embodies hope.

And her work was well received. People smiled. Children came up to the stage to hug Yamin afterward.

“!Uno más! One more!” they cheered.