Marimba youth group offers response to violence

By Michelle Martin
Sunday, September 4, 2016

Marimba youth group offers response to violence

Members of the marimba group from Holy Cross Parish in the Back of the Yards neighborhood play during a pop-up concert near 47th and Paulina on Aug. 17. The group decided to perform the concerts during certain weeks of the summer as a response to violence in the community. (Karen Callaway/Catholic New World) (Andres Ortiz, Angel Ramirez, Alondra Ocampo, Jennifer De La Torre, Juan Gervacio/Angel Jimenez and Diana De la Torre)
The group of young people get ready to perform. (Karen Callaway/Catholic New World)
Juan Gervacio plays the Afoxe percussion instrument. (Karen Callaway/Catholic New World)
Noah Santoyo, 3, dances to the music on Aug. 17. (Karen Callaway/Catholic New World)

The Holy Cross-Immaculate Heart of Mary marimba ensemble is not a way out of the Back of the Yards neighborhood for its teenage members. Instead, it provides a route for the young musicians to develop the skills they need to flourish, and set an example for the neighborhood children coming up behind them.

That’s one reason the group is performing a series of pop-up concerts on Wednesday evenings all over the neighborhood.

“They go all over to perform,” said Sister Angie Kolacinski, a member of the Society of Helpers who came to the parish 29 years ago. “They decided they wanted to share their music with their own community.”

In doing so, the ensemble members and those who listen become visible to everyone walking down the street, showing residents and passers-by that there is more to their neighborhood than the violence that is most often reported on the news.

On Aug. 17, as seven members of the group set up their instruments on the sidewalk on the 4600 block of South Paulina Avenue, neighbors stepped out onto their porches. One or two dragged lawn chairs over.

As the group played, people rode up on bikes and walked over, sitting on fire hydrants and on the grass to listen. Sister Angie greeted almost all of them by name, and asked how they heard about the concert.

“We put the locations on the Facebook page a day ahead,” she said. “But this music — you can probably hear it two blocks away.”

Sister Angie coordinates the group and drives the van, leaving the teenagers to orchestrate the music and set up and take down instruments. Three of the older members serve as leaders, deciding which members will play at which events. Out of a total membership of more than 20, a small sidewalk concert will include maybe seven or eight members.

Diana De la Torre was the leader on Aug. 17, just days before she was scheduled to leave for her freshman year at Lafayette College in Pennsylvania. She started with the ensemble when she was 12 — she loved music, especially piano, as a child — and eventually became one of the marimba teachers for the younger students.

“I just really like to pass on what my elders passed on to me,” De la Torre said. “I want to teach them and see it move forward.”

The ensemble, now with a 26-year history, sees all of its graduating high school seniors enroll in college almost every year, said Sister Angie Kolacinski.

De la Torre plans to study chemical engineering, but she also wants to find time in her schedule for music classes to improve the lessons she can give the younger students next summer.

Angel Jimenez, 14, would like to one day be in De la Torre’s position. He joined the ensemble two and a half years ago because, he said, “I really like music. You see people come out and they’re all enjoying it.”

Joining the ensemble is a commitment for the teens. They start with two half-hour lessons a week, in addition to weekly group practices and performances. There is no cost to participate; money collected in appearance fees pays the teachers, for instrument upkeep and to feed the performers when they have a show.

Most come to the ensemble from the parish children’s choir, which gives them some background in music and an idea of the commitment that will be required.

The young people learn to play the pieces by ear, memorizing sounds and patterns. Only the chords for the bass keys of the marimba are written down.

In addition to learning music, members learn to present themselves with poise in all kinds of environments, whether that’s performing in front of a crowd at a parish festival or working with hotel staff to get set up before a social event downtown, Sister Angie said.

“It’s getting to perform in other places that’s the motivation for them,” she said. “That’s what everybody wants to do.”

None of the young people is insulated from violence; one of the members has a brother who was shot in the face in February — he is recovering — and a student at Seward Elementary, one of the schools in the neighborhood, was killed in May. Many of the shootings in the area this year have taken place between 1 and 7 p.m., Sister Angie said, including the one where Salvador Suarez was shot just before 2 p.m. June 19, feet from the doors of Holy Cross Church, where Mass was being celebrated. Police said 40 shots were fired in that incident.

“These kids, they walk in danger every day of their lives,” she said. “And they are here because they know that’s not the only thing that exists. There’s good. That’s what we’re all about.”


  • peace
  • non-violence
  • youth ministry
  • holy cross
  • immaculate heart of mary
  • back of the yards

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