CATEURA, Paraguay –The young musicians in this story have performed around the world. They’ve even met European royalty. Yet they live in a garbage dump in South America!
Their secret? A visionary director who has taught them to turn trash into treasure.
Cateura, located on the outskirts of Asuncion in Paraguay, is a community formed around the landfill. Most people here make their living by selling plastic bottles or anything they can recycle from garbage. There is trash everywhere, and poverty and lack of education are a bad combination for the future of its inhabitants – mainly children and young people who are prone to delinquency and drugs.
But for the past six years, a light of hope has been shining in Cateura through music.
It’s the Recycled Orchestra. It got that name because all the instruments these kids play are made with materials found in the trash. Old water pipes become saxophones. Forks, knives, spoons and coins become the keys. Cans and bake trays are used to make violins, and percussion drums are made with X-rays and wooden pallets or trash cans.
It all started with an idea of an environmental technician and music teacher to take children out of the streets and out of the landfill. Favio Chávez, who used to be the choirmaster of his church, directs this innovative project.
“This is a social project that uses music as a catalyst,” Chávez explained. “We are working intensively with many families and many children. We propose a life change, projected into the future. This is a mission. I feel God’s presence. I believe things happen according to His plans.”
This mission was also possible thanks to the help of Nicolás Gómez, a trash picker, now turned into a luthier. From the beginning he was in charge of finding the materials to manufacture the musical instruments.
According to Gómez, “Garbage is not garbage. If you have creative ideas, you can do anything with garbage.”
“I think we have to be grateful for the gifts we have received,” added Chávez. “We must be responsible because those gifts should serve others, too. It’s like what the Bible says:You can’t hide a light under the table. The light has to be where it can illuminate everyone.”
And the orchestra is illuminating Cateura. Until a couple of years ago, no one had ever heard of this place. But all that changed thanks to the trailer of a documentary film that is now being released: “Landfill Harmonic.”
In recent years, The Recycled Orchestra has been invited to perform concerts worldwide. It has received awards from the Royal Crowns of the Netherlands and Spain. Favio Chávez and the children of Cateura have given lectures at the famous TED conferences, and they are inspiring millions.
One of the young musicians, Estela Mary Leon, remembers Chávez’s maxim: “Having nothing is not an excuse for doing nothing. And what we’re doing is an example of that,” she said.
“I realize that I have nothing to envy because everything happens for a reason, and I know this is all God’s work,” she added.
Andrés Riveros is 20 years old and has been in the orchestra since he was 17. He has traveled to more than 20 countries for the concerts, but he dreams of staying in Cateura the rest of his life to transform it and make it a model community.
“Traveling around the world opens your mind and makes you think: Why can’t our country be like that? Why can’t our community be like that?” Andres said.
“Some people are born with everything. Others are not,” he continued. “But everyone has to make progress in their own way. This is ours, with music, with recycling. Maybe we are changing part of our society and the mentality of our own people “.
In slums like Cateura, even houses are made from recycled garbage. A normal violin would cost more than a house. But here, the impossible becomes possible, and the music that comes from recycled instruments is not only giving hope to the children of this community in Paraguay, but also around the world.
Following Paraguay’s example, in 2014 a recycled orchestra was created in Spain, and it already has 50 children that were at risk of social exclusion. This is the first of several projects that are being inspired by Cateura.
Thanks to their hard work and the concerts these kids give, they were able to buy a property where they are now building the largest conservatory in the area.
With 20 classrooms to accommodate the 200 children that already attend the music school and an amphitheater for 300 people, it will also function as a community center, with free crafts classes for all the residents of Cateura. They are also providing scholarships, so all the students have the opportunity to go to college.
“The solution is not to run away from a place,” Chávez said. “The solution is to change the place. You have to have projects first, and then resources will come. It’s ideas that change the world.”