By: Wilfredo J. Burgos Matos
Luis Mojica Torres, from Ponce, had many dreams and hopes in the late eighties of NewYork City. At that moment, many live music venues where closing their doors to performing musicians. After six years of music training at City College, it seemed that teaching was his only chance at having a steady income. Without even imagining how life would turn out after starting as a music teacher at a school in the Bronx, an unexpected opportunity came up stopping him from leaving the position after his first year of disappointment. The Principal offered Mojica Torres the opportunity to conduct a small music ensemble, job that shaped big part of his vision as an educator. However, as simple as it seems in words, it was not after ten years of struggling against the lack of administrative support from the NYC Department of Education (NYCDOE), and of integrating diverse communities and corporate support from local businesses as well as many bake sales, that his life project had finally a name: the Multicultural Music Group (MMG), organization created while serving as the Artistic Director of the Brooklyn Conservatory of Music (BCM) in the nineties.
The MMG is an arts education initiative that focuses on the curricular concept of playing history, a teaching and presenting strategy that gives the students and audiences the chance to learn historical events through customized music as a tool for empathy. The whole concept came as part of a teaching process that was mostly inspired by the panorama of NYC’s most underserved schools.
“Through the support of the Echoing Green Foundation, the sponsorship of the NYCDOE and the guidance of my Doctoral Program at Teachers College, Columbia University, the MMG was created and included three major components: a professional performing orchestra, professional development workshops and an outreach program in NYC public schools. All components had a music/history/reflection aspect in their programming looking forward to improving the lives and social conditions of those underserved youth”, says Mojica Torres.
For the next ten years, with the goal set, after 1996, the MMG accomplished several positive outcomes. Some of them were related to the students’ accomplishments through playing history and others were related to the pluralistic concepts of the program. As a consequence of these results and the exposure of the MMG Orchestra and its panel/concert presentations called Multicultural Music Encounters, the MMG has received much recognition from the government and the communities served.
“Just to name a few, we were recognized in 1999 by President Clinton’s Initiative on Race as one of the “Promising Practices for Racial Reconciliation”. We also got an acknowledgement in 2002 by The Civil Rights Coalition for the 21st Century who recognized us as a “Promising Program” for our efforts in promoting multicultural understanding and world peace. Also, in 2006, the MMG was designated an official “Arts for Peace Ambassador” by the World Association of Former United Nations Internees and Fellows (WAFUNIF) and the United Nations Association (UNA), the two official Civic Charters of the United Nations for our active participation in their instructional programs.”
This road to success expanded incredibly when, as many Puerto Ricans, Mojica Torres began to have a fluent diasporic experience between the island and the city. He was offered to work as the New Dean of Academic Affairs at the Puerto Rico Conservatory of Music. This position not only provided the opportunity to apply the playing history concept in teaching training courses but to prepare a substantial amount of educators to disseminate this strategy to as many students as possible. As the new teachers and teaching artists started applying this concept in their jobs, other local Prep Programs became interested and consequently requested the implementation of this comprehensive concept in their curricula.
“Currently, four higher education institutions in Puerto Rico are implementing the Playing History concept in their Teachers’ Prep Programs, graduating approximately 200 student-teachers per year which in turn can affect the lives of thousands students in public and private schools,” affirms.
The Multicultural Music Encounters
One of the most relevant events of Mojica’s initiative is represented in the Multicultural Music Encounters that are celebrated at the end of every academic year at Lehman College’s Lovinger Theater. This year’s theme was focused on the indigenous people of the Americas and all its manifestations in a global scale. The approach to this long-evolving topic was not that of the DNA ancestry and the preservation of the culture because of an indigenous genealogy, but the undeniable fact that people nowadays, primarily minorities, are still struggling against the invisibility imposed by oppressive political policies, battle that has been faced by many native communities worldwide.
What amazes the most is the way in which the themes are presented. Through a combination between academic panels, and symphonic interpretations of original and popular pieces, the MMG and its orchestra overtakes the senses of the audience to travel around the continents while paying homage to the people whose lives are discussed and cherished during the encounters.
For example, one of the three concerts for this year came as an awaited accomplishment of a carefully prepared series of events with the a commissioned piece titled The Last Taino Battle: The South Bronx. At the beginning, the panel expanded the struggles many Puerto Ricans and immigrants have gone through in the borough, being the highest rate of asthmatic people one of the most enraging issues.
After that, the Puerto Rican composer, arranger, pianist and musical theater specialist, Desmar Guevara, had the responsibility of closing the encounters with an unmatchable piece that honored the Bronx, and the role Boricuas have had to shape the many faces of the struggles of Puerto Ricanness in New York and on the island.
Gravitating towards the importance of discussing and enlarging the forums to talk about “la isla”, next year’s encounters will consider the Puerto Rican debt crisis from multiple perspectives, including economy, education, and health as the most relevant issues regarding the complex reality faced by its people.
Without a doubt, and considering the successful journey of Mojica’s commitment with the arts, the MMG must be followed closely, because they have the ability of conjoining the power of music and history without giving away their will to stand up for what it’s right through education.
“Our initiative promotes an overall greater global understanding, cultural awareness and compassion. Surpassing the individual, the goal of playing history is to make a societal impact by transforming lives, communities and making history,” duty properly fulfilled in this one-of-a-kind multitudinous endeavor that started out of hopes and dreams in the late eighties of New York City.