Children stand in rows and try to stay synchronized while in motion as dance instructor Janelle Ayon readies them for a performance the next day. Down a hallway, other kids sit in a circle with guitars and sheet music on stands in front of them as their teacher tries to simplify reading notes. At the same time, in a back room, still more youths sit around a table and happily decorate a cardboard fish with papier-mâché.
The Orange County Children’s Therapeutic Arts Center (OCCTAC) was abuzz with activity on June 21, the second of three days of activities tied to Classical & Folkloric Music of Latin America, which brought to Santa Ana world-renowned Latin musicians and other artists, many of whom participated in hands-on workshops for children. The night before, on June 20, a Cultural Exchange Roundtable was held at the Mexican Consulate, and the night after, on June 22, a concert at the Godinez Performing Arts Theatre included four maestros who brought with them the sounds of different Latin cultures.
The nonprofit OCCTAC on North Broadway was founded in 2000 by Dr. Ana Jimenez, who was present at the workshops. After the death of her parents, Jimenez wanted to honor their legacies by creating something that they were passionate about. Her father had grown up poor but changed his fortunes and became a successful businessman. Because he knew what it felt like to come from poverty, he decided to bestow his fortunes upon others as well. Jimenez remembers that every summer, when she came home from college, she would go to poverty-stricken areas in the mountains to bring food and money to hospitals and rehabilitation centers.
She inherited her father’s love for helping those with special needs, which led to her opening the OCCTAC, which focuses on helping children who have special needs, are socially unique, come from harsh environments and may be at-risk youths.
Jimenez recruited the maestros who agreed to perform and conduct workshops this year. Alberto de la Rosa is a master harpist who specializes in jarocho music from his native town of Veracruz, Mexico. Luis Alberto Figueroa is a pianist and choir director hailing from Argentina. He began his musical career as a student at the National Conservatory of Music in Mexico, where he obtained his degree. Sonia Morales, a performer and educator from Puerto Rico, is also a master composer from a distinguished family of musicians. Alfredo Rolando Ortiz is a Cuban writer, recording artist and master harpist with a multi-cultural repertoire.
These artists took turns throughout the three days teaching children about their art. They also gave a little time and introduced themselves to the kids and talked about their journeys for about an hour in a small room with three rows of chairs. Their parents kept their phones out listening intently and recording every small performance the artists gave as their instruments were in hand during the lecture.
Ortiz told the room of how he began his career as a harpist. He came from a very poor background, explaining how his mother asked him to break his piggy bank for change in order to buy milk for his newborn sister. He recalled discovering the harp by hearing someone play it late one night and going up to his room to ask about it. When he asked his mom if she could buy one for him, she just reminded him of how he just broke his piggy bank to help them buy milk.
But one day a man overheard his story and told him that he had a harp he bought one day with the intention of learning how to play, but never got around to it. The man offered Ortiz the opportunity to borrow it and he’s been playing ever since. One tune he played almost made me cry. It sounded so beautiful and harmonious. The point of that story was to motivate the kids who were listening to him, many of them experiencing similar humble childhoods. They were motivated to stick with it and continue following their dreams.
After the little pep talk, the kids were split into groups. One group went into a small dance room with mirrors as walls and a balancing rail. That’s where their instructor Ayon, watched them twirl and alternate dances and styles. Some had to stop one dance to put on tap shoes to practice a different number.
Over in the room where kids were being taught how to play the guitar, their circle included someone’s mother trying to learn as well. Other days brought children learning the violin or piano. The cost was $20 for each workshop, with a $10 discount for those who attended all three. Funding also came from a National Endowment for the Arts grant.
Jimenez hopes to put on a Latin Jazz Masters concert in the future. To find out more about OCCTAC, visit www.occtac.org.
Student of journalism; Cal State University Dominguez Hills. Two classes away from BA degree. Intern @ OC Weekly, summer 2019. Intern @ The Beach Comber Spring 2019. Contributing Writer for CSUDH Bulletin Fall 2018/Spring 2019. Contributing Writer at Random Lengths News, 2012-2016. The most misunderstood hidden treasure you’ll ever find. Don’t believe me? See for yourself.