Six years ago, Gina Chavez waved goodbye to her Salvadoran sisters at La Escuela Salesiana Maria Auxiliadora. She has since become a multi-award winning Latin folk singer and a world traveling U.S. Cultural Ambassador. However, her heart has never left Soyapango, San Salvador. Chavez continues to support her Central American sisters through Niñas Arriba, the non-profit scholarship fund she cofounded following her Salesian mission to Soyapango in 2009.
Niñas Arriba celebrated a major milestone this April when Xiomara Cordova became the fund’s first beneficiary to earn a college degree. Chavez will commemorate this monumental achievement alongside Cordova and special guests, Sara Hickman and Suzanna Choffel, on August 13th at the Stateside at the Paramount Theater for the 5th Annual Niñas Arriba Benefit Concert.
These are exciting times for Chavez. She recently returned from a five country, Latin American tour with the U.S. State Department’s American Music Abroad program and is finally settling back into the north Austin townhome she shares with longtime partner, Niñas Arriba Cofounder and consigliere of all things “Gina Chavez music,” Jodi Granado. “I’m ready to dive in and reflect on all of these recent blessings and really crank out some new tunes,” claims Chavez.
It’s been over two years since Chavez released her groundbreaking album, Up.Rooted, and in the wake of its success, she has received numerous accolades to decorate her home. Sure, the nine Austin Music Awards that adorn her living room wall are impressive…almost as much as the legion of MLB bobble-heads standing guard over Pudge Rodriguez’s signed 8×10 on the shelf…arguably the home’s most prized possession. But most of all, it’s the abundance of Virgin de Guadalupe imagery decorating Chavez’s “hacienda” that’s truly attention grabbing.
“We’re both Catholics and we love our faith,” admits Chavez. “We met at the UT Catholic center, oddly enough, but that’s a whole ‘nother story,” she chuckles.
It was their commitment to faith and stewardship that led the devout couple to volunteer in Soyapango, an impoverished San Salvadoran suburb dominated by La Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) violence. “We wanted to do something similar to long-term mission work,” sates Chavez. “At the time, I had a ‘growing music career.’ But, I wanted to learn more Spanish for that career and we both wanted to connect with our Latin roots.”
“For 8 months, we lived on a compound with a bunch of ‘corky’ nuns and taught English to around 300 girls, aged 11-21. We stayed at the school with 18 internas (boarding school girls). We all performed chores, then morning-prayer and then we’d all go to school together. At night, we’d go to evening-prayer, eat dinner and then we’d help them with homework. We got to know the girls very well and at the end of our mission, it was pretty hard to just say goodbye. By that point, they had become our sisters.”
Chavez and Granado debated raising additional funds to stretch their time in El Salvador a few more months. “However, we realized this mission was never about us. It was about the girls,” recounts Granado. “What more could we do to help these young woman?”
“During one of the last volunteer classes, we were speaking with the graduating seniors about their plans. We asked, ‘who wants to go to college?’ And all of their hands went up. Then we asked, ‘well, who’s going through the process and is actually going to go?’ Everybody dropped their hands.”
It all really boiled down to money. The average Salvadoran salary at the time was around $200/month…and that’s a healthy, full-time salary. Sure, Salvadoran students can attend the public university, and yes, technically that’s free. “But, you can’t really get a job with that degree. Plus, the faculty would go on strike for months at a time,” claims Chavez.
Therefore, in order to obtain a decent education, Salvadorans need to attend a private university. However, tuition for a private, Catholic university in San Salvador can cost around $75/month. The cost essentially ruled out any possibility of a private education for the graduating internas at La Escuela Salesiana Maria Auxiliadora.
“So, Gina and I thought, ‘why don’t we create a college scholarship fund for these young women who we considered our sisters?’” recalls Granado. “Four of the girls were about to graduate. So, we chose to start with them. At the very least, we could pay $75 a month and just figure it out. And that’s how Niñas Arriba began.”
VIDES, the faith-based volunteer organization that originally sent the couple to Soyapango, agreed to financially sponsor Niñas Arriba’s in the beginning. All donations ran through VIDES with 100% of the funds going to la Universidad Don Bosco, the local Catholic school in San Salvador.
The university runs the fund as if it’s their own scholarship program enforcing specific requirements the students must meet. The scholarship covers all academic fees, transportation, plus two meals a day…essentially everything excluding room and board.
Now in its fifth year, Niñas Arriba has expanded beyond just a college scholarship fund.
“Before we knew it, Xiomara was entering her final year in college. We thought, ‘oh my goodness! What’s she going to do now?’” asks Granado.
The couple began discussing the issue with David Holiday, Director of Stone Rooms Concerts and current Niñas Arriba fiscal sponsor. Holiday, who has spent a great deal of time in El Salvador with a vast network of resources connected the pair with the Director of the innovative non-profit, Glasswing International.
Glasswing agreed to provide Cordova with an internship position and Chavez and Granado would pay her stipend. At the end of Cordova’s 6-month internship, she can be re-evaluated for full-time employment.
“We are trying to expand and help these girls connect within the professional world to find full-time employment,” states Chavez. “It’s just like here. You can have a degree. But, you also need to have connections, and you need to know how to work those connections….even more so in third-world countries.”
“Xiomara’s situation is very exciting. She’s been placed on a multi-million-dollar project to help revitalize Parque Cuscatlan in San Salvador. There’s so much synergy at work here,” Chavez gleefully states. “Laura Esparza, the Theater Director for our upcoming benefit concert at the Stateside Theater also happens to be a Director at the Austin Parks Department. She has already scheduled Xiomara to connect with several of her colleagues when she is here for the benefit concert and Laura wants to equip her so she can return to San Salvador with ideas that have worked in other parts of the world. It’s all been such a community effort,” states Chavez.
“That’s the beautiful thing, we put ourselves out there with our full hearts and invited people to come along for this journey to help these young women…and people came. When we started, it was just an idea…let’s see what happens. We had no intentions of developing into a non-profit, with large benefit concerts and silent auctions. We just saw these girls as our family and you take care of family,” states Chavez. “We can’t stop now. This is making a significant impact in these girls’ lives and right now, our hearts and love are with them in El Salvador.”
Photos by: Phillip Leach (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Written by: Doug Leach (email@example.com)