Young U.S. Latino changes lives in El Salvador through soccer and ‘The Power of Play’

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The first class of AFJA in Los Amates. (Photo/ Sara Jule / AFJA)

There are few who know the extreme disparities between the U.S. and Central America like 29-year-old Steven Levy.

His mother immigrated to Los Angeles from the infamously dangerous Los Amates, El Salvador in 1979. A decade later, Levy was born, the youngest of five brothers — and the only one born on U.S. soil.

 

He was also the one to give birth to a legacy of lasting change.

One year ago, he founded Academia de Fútbol Juvenil Amatense (AFJA) — a Los Angeles based non-profit that recycles soccer equipment throughout the U.S. and establishes community-based soccer academies for youth, ages 5-19.

Founder Steven and mother Maria at his graduation from USC.

Founder Steven and mother Maria at his graduation from USC. (Photo/ Ron Sosa / AFJA)

Brian Aguilar, of Guatemalan heritage and Levy’s college friend, heard about the project and was inspired to make a short documentary about it called, “El Poder del Juego” (“The Power of Play”). It will be screening at the Central American International Film Festival this Saturday, November 10, in Los Angeles.

The idea for AFJA was conceived because Levy’s mom would send him to her hometown, a town made up of about 150 homes in the northern part of El Salvador, during summer vacations, while his school friends were being sent to summer camp. This allowed Levy to witness firsthand the life his mother had left behind.

“I saw kids, already at 10, working in agriculture and doing hard work,” said Levy about the impoverished youth in El Salvador, who often only had one pair of worn shoes, if that.

“I would communicate with the kids, and make friends, through soccer,” said Levy. “I would start leaving stuff behind like soccer balls, equipment, and toys, because I saw the disparity between my friends here and there.”

Fast forward to 2015. Levy graduated from the University of Southern California, and he now works full-time in IT at an LA-area hospital. However, despite his average American life, with everyday comforts like clean drinking water and takeout food, the image of his young friends in El Salvador — without those same luxuries — never left him.

In the summer of 2017, Levy decided to start a Go Fund Me with a $500 goal, which was quickly surpassed.

Donations collected are sorted out at AFJA HQ in Lynwood, CA.

Donations collected are sorted out at AFJA HQ in Lynwood, CA. (Courtesy AFJA)

“I was just going to buy new gear, and bring it to the kids, but within two weeks we surpassed the goal,” Levy told NBC News. “After I went to El Salvador and took videos and photos, then it really took off. People saw the joy in the kids’ faces. We captured the moment of some of these kids receiving their first shoes.”

The original idea was to give these hard-working youth an outlet to play, but it grew to become an academy for them to also be future leaders in their towns. There are three requirements for eligibility, including academic, attendance, and community service. One of their most important duties is “clean up days.”

“The coaches, teachers and kids in the community get together to pick up the trash in the neighborhood,” Levy explained. “You know we’re having impact when a 5-year-old sees an adult throw a wrapper on the ground and says, ‘Hey, pick that up.’”

Another serious problem Levy has witnessed is the water, which is contaminated with dangerous levels of lead.

“The same water kids were taking to practice is contaminated. One of the moms told us she had to take her 10-year-old to dialysis, because of the level of contamination in the water,” said Levy. “We partnered with another nonprofit called La Mission por Vida, (launching a Giving Tuesday campaign on the 27th of this month) which provides water filters for the whole community.”

Levy said he could not have done this all without the help of his mom, who is the program’s director, residing back in El Salvador, as well as the help of other family members and some of the children’s parents. Thanks to the group effort, the organization now serves 122 youth in Los Amates and Ateos, El Salvador, and there are plans to start a chapter in Guatemala in January.

In Los Angeles, Levy said it really hits home for him to see Central American children in the news, detained by immigration authorities. But he understands why they try to come. It’s out of desperation.

“Here we are with the same kids, and what they look like when someone believes in them,” he said.

Levy said he’s most proud that he’s making his mother proud.

“She came to the U.S., worked the jobs nobody wanted to work,” said Levy. “My brothers joined the military, and I went to college. [Los Amates] is where my mom comes from, the school she went to still has the bullet holes from the civil war.”

“With the academy,” said Levy, “I want to build a sustainable model to be able to use soccer as a vehicle for social change.”

Originally published on NBCNews.com.

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‘Nuestra Herencia’: How a Chicago Schools Mariachi Group Landed a Latin Grammy Nomination

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Mariachi Herencia de Mexico is comprised of students from Chicago’s immigrant barrios. (Meg Rachel / Courtesy Of Mariachi Youth Heritage)

A top-selling mariachi album landed a prestigious Latin Grammy nomination. Its main singers? They’re public school kids from Chicago.

The unlikely story started with an idea that came to Chicago resident César Maldonado.

Born in the Brighton Park area of the city, Maldonado’s parents were immigrants from Durango, Mexico. His parents were factory workers and did not know English. Maldonado excelled in school, and at 33, is a successful investment banker living in Chicago.

Maldonado wanted to give back, and he remembered that his elementary school never offered music or arts classes. He decided this is where he could make a difference for the next generation of young Mexican-Americans.

Maldonado did not have a music background, except for a deep appreciation for mariachi music — his parents played it constantly on the radio while he was growing up. So he decided to found the Mariachi Heritage Foundation (MHF) in 2013. Since then, the non-profit has grown to incorporate mariachi music education in the curriculum of eight of Chicago’s public schools, involving 2,100 students in grades 3 through 8.

As part of one of MHF’s programs, sixteen students, ages 11–to 18, were chosen, by audition, to take part in creating the group’s debut album, “Nuestra Herencia” (“Our Heritage”). After only about a year playing together, the group’s album was released this past May — and then it just took off.

“Nuestra Herencia” reached #2 Top Latin Album on iTunes– marking it one of the most successful mariachi album releases in history. It’s also believed to be the first major mariachi recordings released by a student ensemble in the U.S. It nabbed a Latin Grammy nomination in the “Best Ranchero/Mariachi Album” category.

“It’s beyond anything we thought to accomplish,” Maldonado told NBC Latino, adding that the group also recently played at the prestigious Kennedy Center to celebrate Mexican Independence Day with world-renowned musicians from both sides of the border. “These kids have a passion for the music.”

“Nuestra Herencia” was produced and arranged by Los Angeles mariachi master José Hernandez. It also features celebrated guest musicians from Mexico such as, Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlán, and the top three Los Angeles ensembles, Los Camperos, Sol de México, and the all-female Reyna de Los Angeles recorded vocals on the album. The CD also includes tributes to Juan Gabriel and José Alfredo Jiménez.

“I tell people that mariachi is a sleeping giant in this country,” Hernandez said in a statement. “This album might open people’s eyes to what’s happening to mariachi education in this country. It’s really growing.”

 Mariachi Youth Heritage’s debut album was ranked No. 2 in its first week on iTunes’ Latin chart.  (Meg Rachel / Courtesy of Mariachi Herencia De Mexico)

According to the U.S. Census, Chicago’s Hispanic population grew by 17,000, from 2015 to 2016, and is now the second-largest ethnic group in the city (30 percent of the population). Maldonado hopes that through the integratiion of mariachi into the schools’ curriculums, it will help the students form a connection to their roots and thus increase their pride and self-esteem.

Maldonado said the idea for album came about in 2016, when the Latin Grammys, for the first time, suspended the mariachi genre for not having enough submissions.

“I always like to push the envelope,” Maldonado said. “Mariachi as a genre has been losing a following, because the big names have gone away or passed away —so you don’t really listen to it on the radio,” he said. “I decided to do an album with the students as a challenge for them.”

Maldonado hired the acclaimed José Hernandez and brought him to Chicago four times to work with the students.

“I was extremely proud with how much they learned and absorbed,” said Maldonado. “José really cares about mariachi education — he spends a lot of time traveling around the country educating in schools,” he said. “Mariachi is now in schools in Idaho, Wisconsin…It’s becoming a relevant music form which is engaging students.”

Maldonado is excited for the future, for both the genre and his band.

“We’re going to be touring on the weekends,” said Maldonado. “Next summer, we’re going to do a European tour, and our next album will be recorded in December, during Christmas break in LA, and it should be ready by the spring.”

Maldonado thinks mariachi is almost becoming more popular in the U.S. than in its native Mexico.

“Currently Mexico seems to favor banda, norteño, or American or European pop, and there hasn’t been a huge presence in promoting mariachi music,” explained Maldonado. “In the U.S., mariachi has been growing, because schools have committed to teaching it to its students.”

Originally published on NBCNews.com.