LIMA, Peru -- The young men hunched over their violins, a piano and a traditional cuatro guitar in a quiet Peruvian suburb never imagined their hard-won musical training might be the secret to surviving so far from home.
Brought up under Venezuela's famed El Sistema classical musical education program, they dreamed of scholarships at conservatories, or being poached by international orchestras -- like their colleague Gustavo Dudamel, the kinetic and charismatic director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic.
Instead, they've joined the millions of Venezuelans fleeing hunger and political chaos. It's a journey that has stymied their careers as they were entering their prime -- but also reaffirmed how valuable the determination they developed in the free musical program is to surviving in the hardscrabble world of migrant life.
El Sistema "was like a training camp for us," said Magdiel Hernandez, a 31-year-old classical bass player, who is now teaching music in Lima, "and this is the war. We're in the middle of an all-out war."
El Sistema, or The System, is short for the National System of Youth and Children's Orchestras and Choirs of Venezuela. Founded in 1975 by Jose Antonio Abreu, and backed by successive Venezuelan administrations of all political stripes, El Sistema has provided a no-cost musical education to more than 900,000 Venezuelan children.
Before Abreu died in March, El Sistema and its Simon Bolivar National Youth Orchestra had been celebrated by the UNESCO, honored with a Grammy, played New York's Carnegie Hall in 2008 and featured on 60 Minutes.
But the program's motto, "Tocar y Luchar" -- Play and Fight -- captured its gritty sense of purpose.
Zabdiel Hernandez, a 20-year-old violinist who has been playing half his life, said the program was always about more than just the music.
"Master Abreu would tell us, 'Instead of growing up to be a delinquent, take this instrument and be the best you can be,'" he said.
But Venezuela's dramatic collapse -- featuring hyperinflation, food and medicine shortages and crumbling infrastructure -- is also taking its toll on the program. Cesar Chang, a 27-year-old singer, said many of his band-mates dropped out because they needed the time to find food. There was no money to fix instruments, and professors would simply disappear -- some of the 2.3 million people who have left the country in recent years.
"It really affected me to see so many people leave," he said. "El Sistema is suffering."
On a recent weekday in Lima, where many Venezuelans have ended up, these musicians-turned-teachers were preparing to give classes at the National School of Peruvian Musicians, a private academy, and blowing off steam by ripping through intricate numbers, their eyes closed in concentration.
All of them have stories about struggling on the streets of Lima before their talent saved them.
Darvis Coronado, a 19-year-old classically trained singer, worked at a flea market, a welding shop and sold juice on the streets before stumbling across the academy.
Enrique Montero, the 50-year-old coordinator for the school, who was also brought up under El Sistema, sold bags of water at streetlights, often coming home dehydrated and ill because he couldn't afford to drink his own product.
Samir Sanz, a 28-year-old pianist who used to play with Caracas' Jose Angel Lamas Conservatory, arrived in Peru with less than $8 in his pocket. He cleaned a gym, and washed cars and dishes to survive, "but I was always looking for music," he said.
That they're working in what they love makes them among the lucky.
"I've bumped into people here in Lima playing music on the street for change who are maestros, who were very important people in Venezuela," Sanz said. "I know an incredibly talented luthier [guitar maker] who works as a mechanic."
Andres Saybay, the director of the music school, said the influx of Venezuelan musicians has shaken up Peru's stodgy classical-music scene. In the past, most teachers came from a handful of elite Peruvian conservatories with a sense of entitlement, he said.
"The difference between a mediocre [Peruvian] teacher and these Venezuelan musicians is that the Venezuelans know that behind them are a million other people who are equally or even more talented," he said. "So they're all giving 200 percent."
Marnix Willem Steffen, a Dutch violinist and orchestra director now living in Peru, has put on four classical-music concerts in Lima with 25 Venezuelan musicians who came out of El Sistema.
"The difference between Venezuelan musicians and other South American countries is very big," he said. "I already knew that, from what people had said, but now I found out for myself."
Montero, who works as the coordinator for the music academy and plays big brother to the growing ranks of Venezuelan music teachers, said their talent and drive is a direct result of the program. "While everyone else was playing ball, these kids were playing the flute... Just imagine all the accumulated years of experience," he said.
And yet he worries that this is the wrong time for them to quit learning -- that they're "stagnating."
As Hernandez, the bass player, put it: "Here we're the pros, but we all still have so much to learn."
Even so, the young men said they're grateful their musical education has given them the ability to make money and support their families in Venezuela.
"All of us dreamed of being migrants because we all wanted to continue our music education abroad," said Sanz, the pianist. "But we never wanted to leave like this."
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