Mexican-American Monk Shares His Faith Through Chart-Topping Album

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Basil Nixen, center, a native of Arizona, is the choir master of the Monks of Norcia, who have a chart-topping album of Gregorian chants. (Photo/De Montfort Music/ Universal Music)

Basil Nixen always felt a special closeness to God and now the Arizona native who became a monk is sharing that closeness with the rest of the world through a top-selling album of Gregorian chants.

Nixen took an eternal vow to live in a 10th century monastery in Norcia, Italy. At 35, he is one of the 18 monks at the monastery who live relatively solitary and secluded lives, devoted to prayer and music.

But the monks of Norcia (with an average age of 33) also have found a personal connection with the secular world. In 2012, they started a craft brewery at the monastery, Birra Nursia, which has gained worldwide fame and is their primary source of income.

They have also made their debut album of Gregorian chants called “Benedicta,” which has topped Billboard’s Classical Album list for the past nine weeks.

Nixen is the choir master of The Monks of Norcia. He was also musical director for their album and wrote the one original composition on the album, “Nos qui Christi iugum” (We who have received Christ’s yoke).

Before entering the monastery, Nixen spent two years studying music at Arizona State University’s School of Music. He was only 20 when he chose the monastic route.

“I had already wanted to become a priest, but while I was studying for the priesthood, I wanted to understand more about the liturgy of the Church,” he says. “I grew to learn the chants, and this had to be the most important moment of my life. I found a community in Norcia where they lived this daily form of prayer, and this was a very big moment for me where I learned I could live my life through Gregorian chants.”

He believes his Mexican heritage played a key role for him wanting to go into the priesthood from a very young age.

“Both of my parents come from Mexico – they came from traditional Mexican families,” says Nixen. “Being Catholic was part of their heritage and identity – they passed that down to me.”

The life of a monk is no easy task. Nixen says a typical day begins at 3:30 a.m. and ends around 9 pm.

“Some might wake up earlier,” he says. “Our first prayer is at 4 o’clock … It’s the longest and most difficult prayer of the day, but it really gets the body and the mind flowing.”

He adds that it’s a crucial element in monastic life to gather throughout the day. Including the Mass, they gather eight times to pray through chanting.

“In between those prayers, we work,” says Nixen. “In addition to the brewery, a lot of work goes into receiving guests and pilgrims. We also have a monastic store that we operate, and the normal runnings of the monastery – cooking – which I oversee as cooking master, liturgical work goes into prayer service, and then the managing finances and communications – our lives our very full.”

As far as diet, he says they follow the rule of St. Benedict who asked that they abstain from eating meat. Additionally, for half of the year (from September until Easter) they have only one primary meal in the afternoon, instead of two, as the rest of the year.

“This small expression of discipline helps us devote ourselves to God,” explains Nixen. “Our diet consists of fish, eggs, legumes, beans. We are living in Italy, so we have pasta almost every day. We are also an international community, so we might have a strong Asian meal. I come from a Mexican family, so we might have a Mexican meal.”

Nixen, who just celebrated his seventh year of perpetual vows, says he’s noticed quite a few changes since he’s joined the monastery.

“Before, the distance from your family was a much bigger sacrifice,” he says. “Now I can have Skype contact … However, it’s still important that you have separation from the world and separation of family and friends … It’s arranged by our superiors how often [you can contact the outside world].”

Additionally, the number of Latino Catholics have decreased. According to the latest Pew Research Center report, 55 percent of Latinos are Catholic in the U.S., down from 67 percent in 2010. However, Nixen does not show concern.

“I think the best thing that the church can do is be herself and be the living truth as given to us by Christ,” says Nixen. “The more authentically she does this, the more people will be drawn to it. Authenticity is key.”

It was authenticity after all which led to the success of “Benedicta.”

“These chants were written in a climate of prayer – an expression of somebody’s prayer and relationship with God – that’s the reason for its beauty,” he says. “You perceive some of the peace that was part of the experience. The music itself is written through an authentic experience with God.”

Originally published on NBCNews.com.

‘Unity’: A Latin-Style Tribute to King Of Pop Michael Jackson

Composer and arranger Tony Succar (Photo/ Julie Hunter)

Composer and arranger Tony Succar (Photo/ Julie Hunter)

At 28, composer and multi-instrumentalist Tony Succar has accomplished a pretty remarkable feat. For the past four years, he has worked tirelessly to bring to life the masterpiece that lived in his musical mind – to unite 100 talented musicians, including Jon Secada and salsa stars such as Tito Nieves, Obie Bermudez and La India, to make the first-ever Latino tribute to the late King of Pop, Michael Jackson. In other words, think “I Want You Back” with a salsa twist.

After licensing obstacles and hours and hours of rehearsals and editing with Michael Jackson’s very own Grammy-winning audio engineer Bruce Swedien, Succar’s 12-track album, aptly titled “UNITY: The Latin Tribute to Michael Jackson,” is being released April 14th on Universal Music Classics in collaboration with Universal Music Latin Entertainment.

As part of the project, Succar and his production company produced an hour-long documentary about the legendary experience which is going to be released on DVD in Mexico this month and with plans for the U.S. in the future.

It’s fuego!” (“It’s fire!”) is how Succar describes his debut album.

Born in Peru to a Japanese mother and a father with Lebanese, Mexican, and Spanish roots, Succar immigrated to Miami, where he presently lives, when he was two. He was surrounded by music all of his life, as his parents Antonio and Mimy Succar were musicians in Peru. While in the U.S., the family started their own family band called Mixtura – the same name Succar named his current production company after.

Soon after graduating with a master’s degree in jazz performance at Florida International University in 2010, Succar says he got a call from a booking agent asking him to produce an outdoor Halloween tribute to Michael Jackson called “Thriller on Collins.”

“But I said, ‘I’m a salsa band – how am I going to do that?’,” Succar recalls replying to him. “So it was like God saying this is going to happen. I did a salsa version. The people loved it,” he says. “When I saw the reaction, I thought if they liked it with ‘Thriller,’ they would like it with other songs. It was a dream for me starting from nothing.”

After the success of show, Succar wasted no time in starting a Kickstarter campaign which raised $10,700.

“The main thing that connected with me is his (Michael Jackson’s) musicality. He kept pop music at a high level. Being a musician, you love that and all of us [musicians] understand that,” says Succar. “And secondly, I really admired that he wrote music with a very positive social message that spoke about love and change. Something we need to respect Michael Jackson for, and why I named the album “UNITY.”

The other musicians share a similar sentiment.

“Michael Jackson was an influence for a lot of singer-songwriters,” says singer Jon Secada in the “UNITY” documentary. “I think what attracted me to this project starts with the music – how much I love the music. I think Michael Jackson would love it, because he was an innovator. He enjoyed taking chances.”

Tito Nieves added, “All we can do is make sure his music never dies.”

How did Succar get so many well-known musicians to participate in his project?

“It wasn’t that I chose them, it was a domino effect,” says Succar. “I tried to get Tito Nieves for three months until I said ‘Olvídate!’ (‘Forget it!’) I ran into Kevin Ceballo. We started recording the songs. I was planning just to do it with him. Then a guy peeked in the studio one day and said, ‘Hey, it sounds pretty good.’ He was really good friends with Tito Nieves!”

Apparently, Succar says he had e-mailed Nieves so many times, they told him he had been labeled as spam. However, thanks to that random listener who knew Nieves and called him on the spot, Nieves agreed to participate in the project immediately.

“The music spoke for itself – that’s how everyone was chosen,” says Succar. “No money in the world could have made this happen.”

Succar says he listened to every Michael Jackson song multiple times in order to choose the tracks for the “UNITY” album. At first, he was going to choose the ones that gave him goosebumps.

“But all of them gave me goosebumps,” says Succar laughing.

“All African music has la clave – bam bam…bam bam,” he continues, while tapping his hand on his knee as if it were a cajón – the first instrument he ever learned at age three. “When you analyze Michael Jackson’s music, I would call it African American music. When I listened to the music, I’d play la clave to it, if it sounded good, those were the ones I’d keep.”

Then, he says he thought about how to create a story with the songs he picked.

“‘I Want You Back’ was a song he sang as a little boy on ‘The Ed Sullivan Show’…the most important I wanted to include were songs that spoke about Michael Jackson’s mission – about unity and change,” says Succar, who also ended up including “Earth Song” sung by La India and “They Don’t Care About Us” sung by Kevin Ceballo, among others. “At the end, it’s to be a grain of sand to continue what he wanted to see in this world – ‘No’ to discrimination and ‘yes’ to equality.”

Succar says he had become the ultimate fan of Jackson after he died, and even more so after this project.

“I’m so thankful for the opportunity for me to put a drop of sand in his legacy and inspire others to learn about his music,” he says. “Many times Latinos know the songs, but not the lyrics so sometimes we change the lyrics to Spanish.”

In total, 100 musicians participated in the “UNITY” album, but Succar says there are 16 of them that travel to play.

“I want to be able to tour the live Michael Jackson experience,” says Succar. “I strongly believe that ‘UNITY,’ that title, is not only a representation of what this album means, but a representation of a movement that I’d like to create where we can unite cultures and do special projects. I want to try to do the same with other artists and bands like The Beatles, and the Bee Gees – songs that translate to the Latin format. Un granito de arena. UNITY is not going to end here. You’ll see more in the near future.”

Originally published on NBCNews.com.

The Tejano Sculptor Behind The Life-Size Statue Of Texas Coach Gil Steinke

 

Armando Hinojosa with his statue of Coach Gil Steinke (Photo/Doug Smith)

Armando Hinojosa with his statue of Coach Gil Steinke (Photo/Doug Smith)

Amando Hinojosa is a former art teacher from Laredo, Texas, well-known for his beautiful bronze sculptures across the nation.

Over his 40-year sculpting career, his intricately detailed work can be seen decorating Sea World, Boy Scouts of America, and different hotels and court houses around the country. In 2012, his Tejano Monument was unveiled in Austin – the largest monument at any state capitol in the nation. It is comprised of 11 life-size bronze sculptures and represents the Hispanic influence on the formation of Texas.

RELATED: Sculptor to unveil Tejano Monument after a decade

On Saturday his latest project was unveiled at the football stadium of Texas A&M University-Kingsville: a life-size, 6-foot statue of its legendary football coach, Gil Steinke. Steinke led the Javelina football team from 1954 to 1977, and played for Texas A&I University, as it was known until 1993, from 1938 to 1941.

“He was the first college football coach to recruit Blacks and Hispanics,” said Hinojosa in an interview with NBC News, when asked why this particular project makes him so proud. “He won six national champions…and got more players in the NFL Hall of Fame than any other coach.”

Hinojosa, who is an alum of the University when it was called A&I, said that a life-size statue costs about $30,000 to make. According to a University news release, the Texas A&I Alumni Association donated the statue to the school, and the University paid $70,000 to prepare the foundation.

“Twenty years ago, we changed our name from A&I, but we still have an alumni group for A&I,” said A&M University-Kingsville President Steven Tallant. “That group raised the money and selected Armando to do the sculpture, and they donated the sculpture to us.”

Hinojosa has two more statues on the Kingsville campus, including one of their mascot, javelinas, called “Leader of the Pack.”

(Photo/Doug Smith)

Hinojosa explained he is a proud Tejano. His father – also an artist– came from Mexico and married his mother, an American citizen, who was a direct descendant of the founder of Laredo, Don Tomas Sanchez. His family resided in Texas as early as 1755.

The energetic 70-year-old artist said he’s looking forward to his next project. The Cotulla Convention Center in South Texas has already booked him to make a life-size sculpture of the city’s founder, Joseph Cotulla.

“I gotta move on,” he said. “I gotta work for the future now. I’m ready for something new.”

Originally published on September 6, 2014 on NBCNews.com.

NYC songwriter couple sing together in the name of immigration

Katya Diaz and Chris Hierro (Courtesy Break Out The Crazy)

Katya Diaz and Chris Hierro (Courtesy Break Out The Crazy)

Talk about a match made in heaven.

Katya Diaz is the daughter of Puerto Rican opera singer Justino Diaz, and Chris Hierro is the son of Henry Hierro, music producer and Dominican leader of the 80’s merengue band La Gran Manzana.

Katya and Chris are singer/songwriters themselves and met while singing background for multi-Grammy-winning Spanish pop singer Alejandro Sanz two years ago. Ever since then, their love for each other blossomed, and they started writing songs together. Their repertoire has a wide range from country/pop to electronic dance music.

“After reaching out to everyone we know, we decided to just upload our demos to the internet via Soundcloud, and now YouTube, under the name ‘Break Out The Crazy’ and try our luck that way,” says Chris, who produces and accompanies other artists and is currently signed with Peer Aquos Music.

His latest project, with girlfriend Katya, is for a cause they are both passionate about – immigration.

“It was originally suggested by our good friend Anthony Valderrama who, like us, was seeing what was happening at the border on the news,” says Chris. “We are usually not political writers, but Katya and I were compelled by the fact that this was affecting innocent children. I am a father of a 4-year-old boy and will always champion for children’s rights.”

Originally published on DailyVida.com.

Film, “Justice for My Sister,” becomes movement for eradicating violence against women

Kimberly Bautista (right) filmmaker of “Justice for My Sister.” (Courtesy Kimberly Bautista)

Kimberly Bautista (right) filmmaker of “Justice for My Sister.” (Courtesy Kimberly Bautista)

Many have heard of the mysterious killings of the women in Juarez, Mexico, but filmmaker Kimberly Bautista is traveling from country to country to spread the word about what she says is the femicide that’s also common in Guatemala and other Central American countries.

Her award-winning documentary called “Justice For My Sister” is about a 27-year-old Guatemalan mother of three who left for work one day and never returned. It was revealed shortly after that her boyfriend had beaten her to death and had left her on the side of the road. According to Bautista’s data, 580 women were murdered in Guatemala in 2007, and only one percent of those cases have been solved.

The film, which promotes awareness of violence against women, has made the rounds in film festivals in the U.S. and Central America and will screen in San Jose, Costa Rica, Wednesday. It was named the best long-form documentary in Central America as well as in the Los Angeles Latino International Film Festival this past October. But most importantly, its anti-femicide message has turned into a movement.

“The goal is to replicate what we’ve done in Guatemala across Central America and to raise awareness about violence and for ways women can get help,” says Bautista, who has also started Texting Peace – a program which allows women to report threats or harassment via text message.

Another aspect of her anti-violence campaign is training youth to learn about the cycle of violence, and engaging men in the conversation.

“Most violence against women is a result of male privilege, because society is constantly justifying their actions – that contributes to more violence,” says Bautista who gets funding through different embassies. “Once they receive their training, they present events in their specific communities.”

Bautista, 28, is originally from Pasadena, Calif. and is born to a Colombian father and Irish-American mother. However, she has been an activist against the violent killing of women in Juarez since 2003.

“I think that to a certain extent domestic violence against women is so marked by silence that I wanted to offer a platform to intervene in that,” she says. “There are many facets of violence – sexual, physical, verbal – it’s just so pervasive…A key part of violence prevention is to provide people with a safe space to develop their leadership skills, so they can be active community members and call out violence when they see it.”

She says she the anti-domestic violence movement in general becomes more proactive through community building and holding people accountable.

“I want people to understand that this isn’t just an issue between two people, — it’s a societal issue,” says Bautista. “When people see the film, they tend to relate to the characters. At the screenings, we’ve heard stories of rape, economic and emotional violence.”

The filmmaker is no stranger to violence herself. During the end of the 4-year period it took to make the documentary, Bautista herself was held hostage and raped by armed assailants in the house she was staying at in Guatemala. Her camera equipment was stolen, but to this date, there’s no resolution to the case, and it’s unclear if the perpetrators had targeted her because of the work she was doing.

“We were able to identify two suspects, but they were released,” says Bautista, which is a similar occurrence that happens in other violence against women cases in Central America, according to the film.

She explains this act of violence towards her made her realize her film could be used as a prevention tool and hopefully encourage especially men to take a stand against violence.

“In the process of making this film, we were able to take justice into our own hands in a transformative way,” says Bautista.

Originally published on NBCLatino.com

What happened to freestyle? Two kings of the genre still going strong

TKA performing at the soldout New Jersey Performing Arts Center on November 23, 2013. (Courtesy Kay Seven TKA Facebook)

TKA performing at the soldout New Jersey Performing Arts Center on November 23, 2013. (Courtesy Kay Seven TKA Facebook)

Freestyle – the dance-pop electronic genre with an added heap of emotion and romance, was at the height of its popularity in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s. The genre, created by Latinos in New York City, continues to be followed by loyal fans today as they flocked to freestyle concerts across the U.S. this year.

After performing in New York City’s Radio City Music Hall last winter, as well as a summer tour on the West Coast last Saturday, more than 10 freestyle performers, including including Cynthia, Johnny O., and Stevie B, sang to a packed house in New Jersey’s Performing Arts Center. Louis “Kayel” Sharpe Figueroa, the lead singer of TKA, as well as George Lamond were also there, and NBC Latino got to catch up with these two kings of freestyle to find out a little about the beginning of the genre, as well as what they’re up to now.

“Kayel,” also known as “K7,” was born in Ponce, Puerto Rico and moved to Spanish Harlem in New York City when he was four. He is the writer and lead singer of the popular freestyle trio, TKA.

NBC Latino: What are you up to currently?

Kayel: Today I have studio time. I write songs and produce tracks that I submit for different artists.  I got into this business to be a musician, so I still crave it and have the hunger for it as when I first got into it. I’m still searching for that next hit, and I’m still in that search, and I haven’t given up on it yet.

We [TKA] perform weekly. The resurgence and popularity of freestyle music has resurfaced. It is feel-good music, and it has some angst. It’s inspiring a new generation to find themselves in music. Today’s music is good, but it’s more macho bravado. TKA, and freestyle music as a whole, still has that bravado, but it is still able to relate to feelings and truth across the board.

I also perform as a solo artist. K7 is more hip-hop based; the energy of both combined together feels very modern.  I have new songs coming out with TKA – still freestyle, but I’m the creature of the times, so when I go in to record new music, I’m not there to record what I’ve already done – I’m looking upwards and forwards. Fans like to come to the freestyle shows, but I’ve noticed that in our community when a new artist comes out in freestyle – there’s not many people that rush to buy it, because radio doesn’t rush to play it anymore. Freestyle went the way of jazz. It’s very rare that you hear Miles Davis on the radio. It’s not as prominent as it was in the late 80’s and late 90’s.

NBC Latino: What makes freestyle so special in your eyes?

Kayel: Latinos didn’t have a voice in hip-hop early on. We were part of founding it. There were Latin groups like Rock Steady – a group of break dancers – but the mainstream wasn’t about to accept us in the market yet. We had to find a way in which we could find our niche in this music…We were dancing to the hip-hop and club music, and we found ourselves starting to write these love songs – then we started to rap over the intro, and sing melodies over it after we sped the record up…Our own community started liking it. They could find their pain in urban living and in falling in love. That’s how it grew. Originally freestyle wasn’t called “freestyle,” the real term for this music was called, “Latin hip-hop,” then it was called “heartthrob,” but it wasn’t name that was cool enough. So when people danced to it, they would say “I’m gonna freestyle.” If I could be frank, we embrace it, but we always wished another name would resurface, because it limits us to a box.

NBC Latino: What’s you favorite TKA song?

Kayel: “Tears May Fall” changed the direction of where our music was at the time, and I also wrote “Maria” and “Louder Than Love.” “Maria” was a combination of two girlfriends I had. They both had similar looks…I was describing one that stayed in my head and haunted my mind. When I sing about the projects, it was about another one…In the song, I had to have a villain, so I chose a drug dealer. When I originally wrote the song, I was arguing and asking, “Why are you dating the bad side of me?” I made myself the drug dealer mentally. One guy who didn’t care and did all this wrong to her. The nice side of me was against the bad side of me. The same thing with “Louder Than Love” – it’s based on a relationship between two of my female friends. They really loved each other but couldn’t be in the same room. One of them is Elizabeth Rodriguez – she’s on Broadway now and “Orange is the New Black” – she was the basis of it.

NBC Latino: What’s one thing people who know you, don’t know about you?

Kayel: I’m the biggest nerd. I’m kind of proud of that. I’m a big TV buff, and a movie guy. I can tell you what’s going to be cancelled before they cancel it. I’m a human Neilsen box.

George Lamond, now 46, started singing when he was 9, growing up in the Bronx, NY.

NBC Latino: What is your favorite freestyle moment?

George: There was a lot of them, but I guess my favorite one is performing in front of 10,000 in Madison Square Garden. There is nothing like performing in your hometown.

George Lamond in 1992. (Courtesy George Lamond)

George Lamond in 1992. (Courtesy George Lamond)

NBC Latino: Why do you think freestyle was a genre so dominated by Latinos?

George: Because it came from the Bronx where the majority of Puerto Ricans lived. Our parents landed in the Bronx for better jobs. Freestyle, for me, is the sister of disco. That’s the best way to put it. I was a huge disco fan when I was young, and a lot of the songs were played at clubs. I saw TKA perform, and that’s how I knew that’s what I wanted to do. I knew I wanted to do music at a young age – when I went to see Menudo in Radio City Music Hall, and they started singing in Spanish and English.

NBC Latino: What do you think happened to the genre?

George: It ended because the majority of the performers didn’t graduate to bigger and better things…It just got monotonous and died out like everything else, but freestyle is still living as well, because it’s a part of our culture and lifestyle…We have hip-hop, freestyle, and salsa.

I see a resurgence in salsa now  – a new singer, David Kada, has new record that is doing very, very well. Record producer Sergio George, has a lot of new kids. When it comes to salsa, it’s not going to go anywhere.

NBC Latino: What do you think made your salsa version of Juan Gabriel’s “Que Te Vas” such a chart-breaking hit in the 90’s?

George: I felt a connection to it, because at the time I was going through a really bad relationship with my ex-wife and that song was helping me out. It was a therapeutic moment. I didn’t know the effect I was having on the audience, but they still tell me.

NBC Latino: What are you up to currently?

George: I’m constantly recording and touring a lot. I’m also a dad to a 17, 14, and 7- year-old. I never remarried again. Maybe somebody will want to deal with me one day (says laughing), but I’m looking to put a salsa single together. I’m also releasing a new single called “Brining My Love Down” on Thanksgiving day – this song is another sound of George Lamond – R and B that I’ve been dying to do for my crowd – the people that used to listen to me and now have kids and families – I want to slow it down a little bit. I’ve been doing music for 25 years – it’s my full-time job.

NBC Latino: What is your favorite song to sing?

George: “Without You” – you can hear a pin drop when I sing that song. The title speaks for itself. Have you ever loved someone so passionately and intimately you never want to lose that moment? How do you live without them?

NBC Latino: What’s one thing people who know you, don’t know about you?

George: I’m a great cook. I can make a really good lasagna, and a really good shrimp bisque. I invested in a restaurant once, but I thought it would keep me away from my kids. I grew up without a father so I promised I would never leave my kids alone.

Originally published on NBCLatino.com.

Amidst drugs and violence, art turns lives around in PR housing project

Anoushka Medina and Xavier Morales, protagonists in “For Love in the Caserío.” (Courtesy Cine-Coop)

Anoushka Medina and Xavier Morales, protagonists in “For Love in the Caserío.” (Courtesy Cine-Coop)

Antonio Morales was born in the second largest housing projects in the U.S. – the Residencial Luis Llorens Torres in San Juan, Puerto Rico – also known as el Caserío. His dad was a drug lord in their intimate, yet violent world consisting of 140 buildings and about 2,600 units, and his mom was one of its drug addicts.

As a boy, Morales would find guns in the closet and drugs under the mattresses, but at 15, he found the arts. Morales had passed a competitive audition to attend the Jose Julian Acosta Theatre Arts Middle and High School in Old San Juan, and that was his one-way ticket out of his violent past.

“I knew I didn’t want to end up like my father,” says Morales. “I found my passion in the arts, and I was convinced that the arts was going to be the most effective tool to get kids off the streets. Once the federal agents arrested my dad, I started Viviendo el Arte – in the housing project…I started to teach theater to other kids in the neighborhood as a way to help them.”

While studying theater at the University of Puerto Rico, Morales says he got the urge to write a play for the kids in el caserío to act out. It was inspired by Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet’s” family feud. He wrote his own theatrical love story set in the housing project.

Instead of the Montagues and Capulets, the friction was between feuding gangs – Los Caliente and Trebol. In the play Cristal and Angelo meet and fall in love, but their families belong to the feuding gangs. The successful play, “For Love in the Caserío” then became a feature film, and it has had so much success in 16 movie theaters on the island it just started a three-day tour in New York this week through November 14.

“I found so many similarities to our reality,” says Morales about when he first read “Romeo and Juliet” in high school “I found it so amazing that I could include all our social problems in Shakespeare’s plot line…I used all my reality and joined it with a prohibited love story, and it was a success.”

But the success he is most proud is how his art has helped change many lives in a housing project known primarily for its drugs and violence.

“First it transformed the kids, and then it went on to transform the parents, and then the community,” says Morales. “Before I knew it, everyone wanted to come see the play. They knew it was about their lives. They felt I was exposing them, but I also offered different tools to better themselves.”

Since Antonio first wrote the play 12 years ago, it has been presented more than 500 times all over the island, and it has flourished with the involvement of members of el caserío  – from lighting to set design.

“For Love in the Caserío” writer and producer Antonio Morales. (Courtesy Cine-Coop)

“For Love in the Caserío” writer and producer Antonio Morales. (Courtesy Cine-Coop)

He explains that after each show he and the director, Luis Enrique Rodriguez, talk to the audience.

“People in the audience sometimes would confess the bad things they were doing, and with tears in their eyes, say they wanted to be rescued,” says Morales.

Now 31, Morales remembers back when he was 15, and the kids he recruited for his project were around 12.

“I had to be the most outstanding student, because I had the responsibility with other kids in the community,” he says. “I had to understand everything so I could have the answers.”

 He happily mentions that many are still active and teaching the next generation involved with Viviendo el Arte, or have careers in the arts themselves. Now in their late 20’s and early 30’s, they are also the actors he used in “For Love in the Caserío.”

“I was very convinced that it had to be done with our kids,” says Morales.  His 25-year-old brother Xavier, who started acting in the play at age eight, plays the lead in the movie. “They lived it, it’s their reality.”

When officials at the San Juan office of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) saw the play, they got involved, and continue to meet regularly to provide support to the project. The New York Times reports that, so far, housing officials in Puerto Rico have given $2.8 million for a tour of the play and the production of the film.

After HUD Secretary Maurice Jones saw the play, he received a letter from Morales, which was posted in the HUD web site.

“In the late 1990′s, we learned an increase in prison sentencing and armed police officer presence made little difference in controlling drug crime in Puerto Rico,” wrote Morales. “Moreover, we learned punishment does not drive behavior. However, what has been proven successful and what drives public housing youth to modify behavior has been peer modeling. This is why I created the theater group which includes a group of talented individuals from the largest public housing project in Puerto Rico, Llorens Torres, to star in my play, ‘Por Amor en el Caserío.’”

Morales tells NBC Latino, “Now we’re in New York, and we want to continue to work hard and spread our message. What are the chances to succeed when nobody cares?”

Today, Morales lives with his brother Xavier in an apartment in Guaynabo, near San Juan and works full time in film production and with his theater group, San Juan Drama Company, which is volunteer run and involves more than 100 youth.

Xavier Morales says he had two older brothers to look up to, one was a drug dealer like his dad – both of whom ended up in federal prison – and his brother Antonio.

“Antonio inspires me,” Xavier told an audience after the film screening in John Jay College on Monday. “He changed my life.”

 The film’s producers say crime has significantly decreased in the housing project and the drug gangs support Morales’ work after seeing the positive effect it’s had on the youth.

“We want people to see our work because of the social transformation effect it causes,” says Morales. “It’s not just a movie.”

“The audience comes out different than when they entered – that’s how you know your art is working.”


Originally published on NBCLatino.com.