The Next Stage: How Young Venezuelan Artists Continue Their Studies In The U.S.

Sep 14, 2019
Originally published on September 18, 2019 9:37 am

María Fernanda Papa was 4 years old when she and her family arrived in Miami. She'd begun dancing back home in Venezuela, and when she and her parents settled in the U.S., she asked if she could continue practicing ballet. Eventually, they found a spot for her in an "amazing school," says María, now 16.

That amazing school, run by the Arts Ballet Theatre of Florida, is in a strip mall in North Miami Beach. Many of the dancers are Venezuelan. In recent years, more than 200,000 Venezuelans fleeing political and economic upheaval have settled in South Florida.

Many of the children are continuing artistic studies they began in their home country. Arts Ballet Theatre and its associated school is run by Ruby Romero-Issaev and her husband, ballet master Vladimir Issaev. They came to Miami from Venezuela in 1997, a couple of years before Hugo Chávez came to power. Over the next two decades, under Chávez and his successor Nicolás Maduro, the country became more authoritarian and basic goods and services became harder to get. So, many other Venezuelans followed, including families with children.

"Although they knew they were going to struggle, they didn't want the children's lives to change," Romero-Issaev says. "If they were doing tennis, they wanted to do tennis. If they were doing soccer, they wanted to do soccer. If they were doing ballet, they needed to do ballet."

With help from Miami's Children's Trust, a quasi-governmental agency, Arts Ballet Theatre and the school are able to provide scholarships to students from low-income families, including many newly arrived from Venezuela.

Lusian Hernández, 25, is a soloist who dances with Arts Ballet Theatre's professional company. She came to Miami when she was 16, determined to continue her studies and launch a career. In Venezuela now, she says there are few opportunities for dancers.

"Many schools had to close," Hernández explains. Students didn't have the money to pay tuition, and without tuition, the schools couldn't pay rent. "It's very insecure," she says. "So [dancers] have to leave the country and the schools start closing."

There used to be three professional ballet companies in Caracas. Now there's just one, Hernández says, and it's small. She remembers point shoes were already expensive and hard to find a decade ago — her parents, who are still back at home in Venezuela — say it's now all but impossible to get a pair.

Hernandez considers herself lucky to be in the U.S. where she can continue her studies with the hopes of one day becoming a professional dancer. With help from Arts Ballet Theatre, Hernández collects used point shoes from the company's dancers which she sends to a dance school in her hometown.

Other arts programs in Miami are also working to help young Venezuelans adjust to life in a new country. On a recent afternoon, at a church in the Miami neighborhood of Coconut Grove, a dozen beginners on violins and cellos are playing scales and simple tunes. They're part of Musicall, another arts program offering scholarships. About a quarter of the program's 300 students are from Venezuela.

Venezuela is "a very musical country," says opera singer and Musicall teacher Carlos Silva. He began his vocal studies at a school that was part of El Sistema — the renowned Venezuelan music education program founded more than 40 years ago. Its graduates include conductor Gustavo Dudamel, who now leads the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

But under the Chávez and Maduro regimes, music education programs suffered and many teachers left the country, Silva explains, and now "those who couldn't travel outside of the country are stuck there and they are facing a lot of problems."

In today's Venezuela, Silva says, there are more pressing needs than music education. People are starving, he says: "It's difficult to find a place for music. There are priorities and the priority there is to find something to eat." Silva wants to someday go back to Venezuela to teach, but he doesn't know when that might become possible.

Ruby Romero-Issaev, with Arts Ballet Theatre, is ready to help rebuild Venezuela, too — but in the meantime, she has work to do here. "We were lucky at a certain point to be here, to have a visa, to be able to work, to be able to establish our lives here," she says. "We think it's our responsibility to try to help other Venezuelan families that are bringing the kids."

Knowing what their families and friends are going through in Venezuela is hard for her students, Romero-Issaev says: "You see their sadness, but once they get into the studio, and the music starts to play ... their minds, their hearts open and they feel they're in another world."

: 9/18/19

A previous version of this story misspelled the last name of Nicolás Maduro as Muduro.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Over the last several years, more than 200,000 Venezuelans have settled in South Florida. They've come to the U.S. to escape political and economic upheaval and brought their children with them. From Miami, NPR's Greg Allen has the story of arts programs that help young Venezuelans adjust to life in a new country.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: In a strip mall in North Miami Beach, Arts Ballet Theatre holds classes for dancers from beginners to advanced.

UNIDENTIFIED TEACHER: Plie and stretch. Squeeze those legs when you stretch.

ALLEN: Many of the students here are Venezuelan, continuing studies they began in their home country, like 16-year-old Maria Fernanda Papa. She arrived with her family in Miami when she was 4. In Venezuela, she'd already begun dancing.

MARIA FERNANDA PAPA: And when I got here, I kept telling my parents, like, can I please do ballet; can I please do ballet, until they finally, like, put me into this amazing school.

ALLEN: It's run by Ruby Romero-Issaev, along with her husband, ballet master Vladimir Issaev. They came to Miami from Venezuela in 1997, a few years before Hugo Chavez came to power. Over the next two decades, under Chavez and his successor Nicolas Maduro, the country became more authoritarian, and basic goods and services became harder to get. So many Venezuelans followed, including, Romero says, families with children.

RUBY ROMERO-ISSAEV: Although they knew they were going to struggle, they didn't want the children's life to change. If they were doing soccer, they had to do soccer. If they were doing ballet, they needed to do ballet.

ALLEN: With help from Miami's Children's Trust, a quasi-governmental agency, Arts Ballet Theatre and its associated ballet school are able to provide scholarships to students from low-income families, including many newly arrived from Venezuela.

Lusian Hernandez is 25 now, a soloist who dances with Arts Ballet Theatre's professional company. She came to Miami when she was 16, determined to continue her studies and launch a career. In Venezuela now, she says, there are few opportunities for dancers.

LUSIAN HERNANDEZ: Many schools had to close because of the situation. It's very expensive. You know, people doesn't have the money to pay their tuition. If you pay tuition, you can't pay rent. And also, it's very, like, insecure. So they have to leave the country, and the schools start closing.

ALLEN: There used to be three professional ballet companies in Caracas. Now there's just one, she says. And it's small. Hernandez's parents still live in Venezuela. They tell her buying pointe shoes, a must for any ballet dancer, is now all but impossible.

HERNANDEZ: Because when I was there, it was already hard to find. They were very expensive. So I'm very lucky that here, also with the support of them, we collect shoes, like, from the company dancers - leotards, stuff like that.

ALLEN: Then Hernandez and Arts Ballet send the used pointe shoes and leotards to a dance school in her hometown.

CARLOS SILVA: Go.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ALLEN: About a dozen beginners are starting out on violins and cellos in a church in the Miami neighborhood of Coconut Grove. They're part of another arts program offering scholarships called Musicall. About a quarter of the program's 300 students are from Venezuela.

SILVA: We are a very musical country.

ALLEN: Carlos Silva is professional opera singer and a teacher for Musicall. He began his vocal studies at a school in Venezuela that was part of El Sistema, the renowned music education program founded in the country more than 40 years ago. Its graduates include Gustavo Dudamel, who now leads the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Silva says that under the Chavez and Maduro regimes, music education programs suffered, and many teachers left the country.

SILVA: Those who couldn't travel outside the country - they are stuck there, and they are facing a lot of problems to continue with the musical education. So now the people are starving there. So it's difficult to find a place for the music. There are priorities, and the priority there is to find something to eat.

ALLEN: Silva wants to go back to teach but doesn't know when that might become possible.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ALLEN: Back at Miami's Arts Ballet Theatre, Ruby Romero says she's also ready to help rebuild Venezuela. But in the meantime, she has work to do here.

ROMERO-ISSAEV: Because the opportunities given to us, that we were lucky at a certain point to be here, to have a visa, to be able to work, to be able to establish our lives here, we think it's our responsibility to try to help other Venezuelan families that are bringing the kids.

ALLEN: Knowing what their families and friends are going through in Venezuela is hard for her students, Romero says.

ROMERO-ISSAEV: You see their sadness. But once they get into the studio and the music starts to play, their lives change, you know? Their minds, their hearts open, and they feel they're in another world.

ALLEN: Greg Allen, NPR News, Miami.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.