Venezuela: INOF Los Teques, Oct. 24th

Dear All,

I’ve just returned from the Institución Nacional de Orientación Femenina or INOF (National Institute of Feminine Orientation). Doesn’t translate well. Its essentially a former convent that has been transformed into a low security, low sentence prison for women. To be honest, my mind is overwhelmed with experiences from my first day in Caracas, to a very talkative (and hard to understand) Venezuelan guide, to a powerful and heartbreaking experience in a women’s penitentiary. It is difficult to make any cogent connections. I’ll do my best to retell my experiences.

The day began with my first views of Caracas in daylight at 6:30 AM. The city is surrounded by breathtaking mountains that seem to be swallowing the city whole. The poorest neighborhoods (Barrios or Cerros) are very generously sprinkled through the mountains like freckles.

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Traffic seems to be an essential Caraqueño experience. To a novice eye the drivers may seem reckless but as I was chauffeured around by my fearless guide, Margarita, I found that cars are simply expected to take advantage of any available nook and cranny on the road. After all, what good are shoulders if you can’t drive on them?

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After a 2 hour drive to Los Teques we arrived at the prison. While I was expecting an overwhelming amount of security I found it odd that the front door wasn’t even locked. At the checkpoint my viola case was loosely rifled though as I thought about all of the great places I could have hidden a shank or some valuable drugs. The surprises continued as I was offered a friendly greeting by staff and incarcerated people (internos) alike. I very quickly began to realize that the institution was much more of a community than I would have ever expected.

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My first stop at INOF was through the Fundamusical (El Sistema) offices. Here all of the instruments for the program lay on a numbered shelf for the internos to retrieve whenever they would like. From here we walked to the building that is slowly becoming overtaken by El Sistema. One of the pillars (and reasons for its sustained success) is to never give up “conquered territory.” Bypassing the overwhelming colonial context, the idea is that once a classroom or space has been offered for El Sistema use the program NEVER gives it up. Not for a newer building, more money, or lack of use (of which there is none).

In the building housing El Sistema I was given tours of the private classes being given to all of the brass and woodwind instruments. From here we travelled upstairs to see the sectionals of the stringed instruments.

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During the lunch hour we were required to leave but soon returned for a surprise masterclass that I was to give to all of the string players. This turned out to be the most inspiring and revelatory experience of the day (at least, for myself). Some of the students had only been playing their instruments for 2 weeks yet had a skill far above many of the students of 1 and 2 years of experience I have worked with in the United States. There is no doubt that the curriculum and techniques of El Sistema are successful far beyond any pedagogy I have experienced. More on El Sistema’s pedagogy another day.

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On our drive home, Margarita explained to me how one of the internos I worked with entered into INOF. When she was 16, enjoying herself on one of the beaches of Caracas, she lost her phone (how is unclear). As a prank, her friends thought they would call her parents and proclaim that they had kidnapped this young girl and demanded a ransom for her to be returned. As her parents attempted to contact the young girl to see if, in fact, this was true, they received no response. Panicking, as any parent would in an environment so overwhelmed with kidnappings, they issued a report with the police. As the young woman returned home the next morning, perhaps not having any idea what her friends had arranged, the parents alerted the police immediately. While her parents were surely ecstatic with the fact that their daughter was indeed safe and secure, the police demanded adherence to the law. The law? Anyone that claims a false kidnapping is required to serve 7 months in jail.

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If I can manage to make any formulated thought tonight, it is that many of these girls are young. Even at my 26 years, many of them seem to barely have half of that. If they are to leave this place and have any hope at losing the stigma they’ve attained while being there they will need the support of their family, community, and friends. May music be one way they can fight for this support and empower themselves to lead the life they want to live.

With love,
Nathan

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