- BA, Music Performance
Hometown:Santiago de Cali, Colombia
Career Goal:To use music to help youth find a way out of poverty
Saved from violence by his violin
By Edward Brown
Edinson Moreno, violin. Edward Newman, piano.
The odds were stacked against Edinson Moreno.
Growing up in Siloe, a notorious neighborhood in the even more notorious city of Santiago de Cali, Colombia, the now 26-year-old witnessed violence almost daily. From seemingly endless fighting among gangs and drug traffickers, murder rates topped 2,000 annually. With 105 different gangs among the population of about 2 million, Cali, as it’s known, is considered the ninth most dangerous city in the world by the Council for Public Safety and Criminal Justice, a Mexican think tank.
But his years in Cali seem like two lifetimes ago. Now he spends his days in the tony environs of TCU. Moreno is set to graduate with a degree in violin performance this fall, and he hopes to become a permanent U.S. resident someday.
“I’ve had so many people help me,” he said. “If it weren’t for them, I wouldn’t be here.”
But how did he escape Cali?
With a musical instrument.
Edinson is a dreamer.
If not for his violin, Moreno said, he would be “dead or making a living with guns.”
TCU faculty member Elisabeth Adkins said Moreno’s talent is evident.
“He loves the violin,” she said. “He is a thoughtful and committed musician and pursues a deeply expressive voice on his instrument.”
Plus, she added, he is “charming in person, and he successfully translates that charm to his musicmaking.”
Santiago de Cali lies near the Pacific Ocean and is the largest city in southwestern Colombia. More than 2,000 young Cali residents were actively involved in gang activity in 2013, according to InSite Crime, a foundation that tracks and analyzes crime statistics across North, Central, and South America.
Moreno was never involved in illegal activities, but, he said, many of his friends were.
When he was 11, he was shocked to learn that a close friend with whom he had just visited had been murdered.
“Wait,” Moreno recalled thinking. “I was talking to him just last night. How is this possible?”
The boy was shot.
A few years later, another friend of Moreno’s was shot and killed in broad daylight in front of him.
Moreno’s Siloe neighborhood is constantly being torn apart by turf wars. Rather than risk their own lives or put friends in harm’s way, the drug dealers often pay kids to kill competitors.
“A child is easy to convince,” Moreno said. “The drug dealer can give them $50 to go and do this. [The kids] need the money. It’s a cycle that never goes away.”
Moreno’s path toward a full scholarship at TCU began in 1995. That’s when he was 7 years old and offered violin lessons by an influential Colombian musician.
The conduit between Moreno and Liliana Arboleda, a violinist with the Cali Philharmonic Orchestra, was Moreno’s mother. Raising her only child on her own, Maria earned $150 a month by working as a housekeeper for the Arboleda family –– in a much different part of town.
The gated community where the Arboledas lived was more than just a safe place for young Moreno. It became like a second home.
Inspired by the Suzuki method, a listening-based approach to music education developed by Shinichi Suzuki in the early 20th century, Arboleda and sister Claudia, a pianist, co-founded The Arboleda Suzuki School of Music in the late 1990s. Moreno was one of the original students.
Under the leadership of the Arboleda sisters, the school had already developed a high reputation when Moreno enrolled. The class gave Moreno his first experience hearing classical music. “It was something strange to me,” he said. “In my neighborhood I was only exposed to folk and popular music, and I had never had the opportunity to try an instrument. I was surprised by how well-behaved the students in the music class were.”
Arboleda had seen music changes lives, she said. One of her close friends overcame childhood poverty to play in a Colombian orchestra. So when her family took on Maria, Arboleda saw an opportunity. Maria quickly agreed.
The lessons were helping her son in more practical ways. The time away from Siloe meant time away from the life of crime that was slowly ensnaring his friends. Now he was spending only mornings and nights in his neighborhood. His time at the Suzuki school, surrounded by rich, well educated families, allowed him to see a very different future than the one laid out for him by Siloe’s gangs.
Moreno completed the lesson books so quickly that some of his classmates’ parents began paying him to sit next to and practice alongside their children.
“I thought that he would be able to be as good as he wanted to be,” Arboleda recalled. “He had the discipline to accomplish whatever he wanted in life. He also had the support of everyone around him, including the children at the academy whom he had won over with his charisma. They supported him even though they came from different economic backgrounds.”
Moreno enjoyed being surrounded by wealth and beauty.
“Everyone looked so nice,” he said, “and they didn’t use weapons.”
Inspired by Moreno’s success and realizing that there were thousands of other talented but underprivileged students in Cali, Arboleda began volunteering, teaching underprivileged children at Parroquia los Cristales en Bellavista. Moreno, though only 11 years old, and several other students from the academy gladly joined her. The only problem is that Arboleda and company did not have enough financial resources.
“The pastor suggested that I create a foundation [so we would] be able to continue the work we had started,” Arboleda said.
Arboleda applied for and was awarded a grant from the Suzuki Institute of Colorado, which allowed her and her sister to create Fundarboledas. The foundation now offers lessons to 90 underprivileged Cali children.
When Moreno turned 18, he knew he was going to face some tough decisions. He wanted to go to college but never dreamed that he’d be able to afford it.
The first door to TCU opened when Maria was let go by the Arboledas. Her release wasn’t punitive. It was just time for the two families to part ways, said Moreno. As remuneration for her years of service, Arboleda offered Maria a lump sum of money. Rather than take it for herself, Maria asked her to support Edinson through college. Arboleda honored the request, and Fundarboledas offered Moreno a scholarship to The Conservatory of Fine Arts in Cali.
Halfway through the music program, another door opened. One of Moreno’s friends, Jose Miguel, was accepted into the music program at TCU. The school’s director of instrumental studies, German Gutierrez, also a Colombia native, was intrigued by Moreno’s story and credentials.
“German Gutierrez contacted me and said, ‘There is this opportunity, and it offers full tuition,’ ” Moreno recalled. “So two years before I finished my time at the conservatory, I decided to apply.”
Gutierrez said offering scholarships to low-income students abroad comes with few guarantees.
“When I allow these students to come on scholarship, it can be a lottery,” Gutierrez said. “I’ve had students who came with a full scholarship that I send back to Colombia. Sometimes they come here, and they don’t work and would rather chase girls and party. But I’m sure that [Moreno] is going to be successful. He’s very conscious of where he came from and how much it cost to climb that ladder.
“It was a very high ladder to get here,” Gutierrez continued. “He’s very humble.”
The application and paperwork were extensive, and an unforeseen snag caused a yearlong delay. To satisfy visa-related requirements, Moreno had to find an underwriter for his TCU scholarship. The United States Citizenship and Immigration Service requires that foreign students have a financial sponsor who can assume any of a student’s debts during his or her time in the country. Moreno didn’t have that connection. As the year passed, he felt worse and worse about his chances of ever finding help.
“There were many [barriers for Moreno] like money, visa, and language,” said Janeth Lotero, the mother of one of Moreno’s classmates at the Arboledas’ school and a longtime supporter of and advisor for the boy. “Looking for an American citizen who, without knowing [Moreno], would agree to pay any debt that arose during his studies” was more difficult.
In 2011, a director at The Trinity, a school where Moreno was working, passed away. Several of the school’s founding members who resided in the United States traveled to Cali to attend the funeral.
Lotero saw the moment as an opportunity to find an underwriter for Moreno. After the mass, she spoke with the visiting directors.
“She explained that I was already accepted to this U.S. college,” Moreno recalled. “My whole life depended on that moment.”
Lotero was able to convince the brother-in-law of the school’s owner to sign the document.
But there was one last thing.
Finding his way in a foreign country.
In the summer of 2011, Moreno had a lot of adapting to do. He was floored by Texas’ massive six-lane highways and gleaming skyscrapers. After spending most of his life in cramped quarters, he also was amazed at how open the sky seemed and how boundless the horizon was in every direction.
And there were some other cultural differences.
“A friend I met here had a girlfriend, and the three of us were meeting for lunch,” Moreno recalled. “She arrived first, and I tried to say hello, but when I tried to kiss her on the cheek, she jumped away. In Colombia, that is how we greet!”
Americans, he also noticed, don’t like to hug, and when they do, it’s half-hearted.
“People don’t like to be touched here, I guess,” he joked.
Language also proved to be a little tricky for the young musician.
Before he could begin classes in the spring of 2012, Moreno was required to pass an English proficiency test.
He had studied English sporadically back in Colombia, but the results of the first rounds of his tests at the TCU Language Center weren’t encouraging. The university required a score of 70 or higher across several tests. On his first attempt he scored 56.
From August through the end of the semester, he spent several hours a day taking language courses and practice tests, but his test scores remained stubbornly low. TCU limits the number of times a student can take the test to five. By December, Moreno had used up all but one opportunity.
“I was afraid that if I didn’t pass the test I would have to go back to Colombia,” he said. “So many people had sacrificed for me to get to this point. I couldn’t let them down.”
What frustrated him the most was that in everyday conversations, his comprehension was improving, but the test results weren’t reflecting that. Each test was done in front of a computer. Something wasn’t getting through.
“So I had one more test left, and it was December,” Moreno said. “This was my last opportunity. So I enrolled in another online language training program … . You speak to a computer, and it measures your pronunciation. I realized that I am talking to computer, not a real person. Computers measure alignments in your inflection.”
Moreno realized that the online test did not measure comprehension. It measured only sound waves. He began playing with the program, even singing nonsensical melodies that matched the contour of the phrase the computer was expecting to hear. It worked.
“I think I know what I’m missing,” he told himself. “It’s the speaking part. Maybe I’m too soft, or maybe I’m not clear enough.”
The next day, he confidently took the final test. His keen ear had given him all of the insight he needed. As he half-yelled his answers into the microphone, the other students in the lab gave him funny looks or tried to shush him.
His test score jumped –– so much so that he received a certificate acknowledging him as the “most improved” international student that semester.
Former Colombian President Álvaro Uribe visited Fort Worth two years ago as part of the Vicente Fox Forum of World Leaders, an initiative created by the former Mexican president in 2011.
Gutierrez arranged a special performance for the dignitary.
“I thought it would be nice to have a Colombian student play, so I asked [Moreno] if he would perform,” Gutierrez said. “I was shocked when he told me he had already played for the president.”
Moreno played for then-president Uribe in 2003 at the Intercontinental Hotel in Cali as part of an award presentation to Arboleda for creating Fundarboledas. Moreno was 14.
“I was young, but I realized he was a big deal,” Moreno recalled. “I performed as soloist in a Vivaldi concerto, and the foundation orchestra was accompanying me. I remember he was in the front table surrounded by important people.”
During Uribe’s presidential campaign, Gutierrez said, one of the candidate’s slogans was, “Let’s put an instrument in every youth’s hand before they pick up a weapon.”
Moreno was still pleased to play for Uribe again, joining TCU music faculty member Harold Martina in a rendition of “Cachupin,” a Colombian folk song.
TCU Provost Nowell Donovan introduced Moreno as an example of how music can save lives.
“That moment brought tears to the audience and everybody there,” Gutierrez said. “Even Uribe was in tears.”
After the performance, Uribe congratulated the young violinist on his accomplishments. Moreno showed the former president an old newspaper photo of the two several years earlier and a thousand miles away in Cali, Colombia.
Even with teaching jobs and freelance gigs with the Plano, Irving, and San Angelo orchestras, Moreno has had a hard time paying for trips home. Two years ago, though, he was able to scrounge together enough money to visit his mother and aunts and uncles.
He also saw some of his childhood friends.
Still stuck in Cali’s violent, pressurized daily grind, most of them looked much older than they were.
“When I saw them, I remembered those moments when we were children and playing together,” Moreno said. “My dream is to help children like [Arboleda] did with me. I’m so grateful for people like German [Gutierrez] and Janeth [Lotero]. They want to help people. I was saved, but we need to do something for other kids too.”
Fundarboledas is still seeking money for classes in bassoon, horn, trombone, and percussion. Moreno, who has received a lot of press and media attention in his native country, is aware that the success of the foundation is tied, in part, to his success as a professional musician abroad.
“I think [Arboleda] saw what I was capable of, and that helped motivate her to start the foundation,” Moreno said. “As the first student to come out of Fundarboledas, I have an obligation to the foundation and to all the people who have helped me to find success here and in my future career. It’s not just for myself but for others who haven’t had all opportunities I was given.”
When friends and colleagues ask Moreno how he likes being at TCU, he often tells them it’s like a dream.
“I was introduced to music early, and it showed me the difference between what was good and what was bad,” he said. “Music showed me a new world of possibilities. It showed me a place where I could be surrounded by beauty.”
This story originally appeared in Fort Worth Weekly. Photo by Brian Hutson, courtesy of Fort Worth Weekly.