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Finding Christmas Anywhere

Updated: Jun 7, 2023

By Leon Intern Abigail Cipparone

Photo: Intern Abigail Cipparone (sitting) working with Goyena chorus.

A few months ago, I learned that the New Haven León Sister City Project (NHLSCP) sought summer interns for its school reinforcement program. The opportunity seemed perfect — I’d get to work at a school, live with a family in León, Nicaragua, and practice my Spanish. So I shot an email to Chris Schweitzer, the Director of NHLSCP, and about 20 minutes later we were chatting at the local Starbucks. When Chris heard that I sing with the Yale Glee Club, he exclaimed “Oh, could you please run a choral program for our school?”. Caught unawares, I agreed. In the coming weeks, my doubts about my decision grew. How could a 20 year old, 2nd year Yale student lead a choral program in Nicaragua? It sounded unrealistic at best, foolish at worst.

When I get nervous, I over prepare. I touched down in Managua, Nicaragua with a backpack full of early childhood choral curriculum, a medley of song selections, and an empty notebook primed and ready for lesson plans.

The first choir of Goyena was a small and scrappy collection of 8-11 year-olds. None of my singers had sung in a choir before, and only a handful had any previous vocal experience. In my first lesson, I tried to lead them in singing Nicaragua Mía, but gave up as I realized that they didn’t know how to match pitch. I started over with ear development exercises and slowly but surely, as the hours and days passed, more and more students began to sing in tune. A melody emerged from within the muddled tones.

In the 4-room Goyena school building, my choir didn’t have any of the resources usually needed for a choral program. The school house rooms were made of concrete, and there was no electricity. I couldn’t rehearse inside for fear that the children would overheat in the 90-degree-plus weather, so I found an outdoor classroom which consisted of a concrete platform with a metal roof. It sat between a dirt soccer field and a stand of corn. This learning space worked well unless it rained; and it poured almost weekly. Drainage was a pipe dream in Goyena, so parents would keep their children from going to school on rainy days. Even with clear skies, choir attendance was mixed. The majority of parents worked so they depended on their children for help on heavy work days.

Nonprofits like NHLSCP work to give Nicaragua a much-needed leg up. They find what Paul Farmer calls in Mountains beyond Mountains “areas of moral clarity” –situations where what ought to be done is perfectly clear. They bring educational programming, women’s health programs, kitchen stoves and a cleaner water supply to Goyena. NHLSCP is fully Nicaraguan-run, and almost completely run by the community of Goyena itself. It leads women support groups and provides reproductive health resources. It supports Goyena public education. The barriers I faced starting the Goyena school choir were uncomfortable, but unsurprising, This was the reality of creating a choral program in the second poorest country in the western hemisphere. Poverty keeps children from attending the best schools, which are in the city.

My family has a story we tell every Christmas called Christmas Anywhere. A train breaks down on Christmas Eve in the midst of a snowstorm. The passengers come together, each sharing what they packed for the holiday with the other strangers on the train. Much like those travelers on Christmas Eve, the first choir of Goyena refused to let circumstances keep them from what they set out to do. 16 boys and girls learned songs from Mexico, Nicaragua, the United States and South Africa. Every day, as I stepped down from NHLSCP’s truck in Goyena, a gaggle of children would shout “Abigail!” and push and pull me to our classroom. The choristers dutifully marched around the room to practice the rhythm of De Colores, and relented to my constant pushing to “Canten juntos!” and to “Pongan sus manos a sus lados!”. As I left the school yard after choir, I’d hear snippets of the song Siya Hamba coming from math class.

A few days ago, we celebrated with an end of the year concert. The singers dressed up in their school uniforms, the closest thing they had to concert black. A few Goyenan women made tortillas and beans and the school teachers decorated a makeshift “stage” and “auditorium” with colored paper and balloons. The concert was a hit. We began with De Colores, then sang If I Had a Hammer. The crowd ate up Siya Hamba, and when we sang Nicaragua Mía, a good dozen community members joined their voices with ours. Singing our last downbeat, we held hands and bowed. As I looked out at the audience, I was overwhelmed with gratitude. I was so grateful for the singers, the staff at NHLSCP, and the parents and community members who contributed their creativity to help to make this choir. The Goyena school choir created a new version of Christmas Anywhere. With resourcefulness, we took what little we had, and gave the gift of music to Goyena. With resourcefulness, Nicaragua can pick itself up. And with persistence, NHLSCP will continue to make a difference.

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