Cultivating Imagination

By Kevin Tankersley

Carlos Colón discusses music, education, peace and harmony

Carlos Colón likes many things about Waco: Cameron Park, the food industry and especially the Waco Downtown Farmers Market because that’s where he met his wife, Susan. She was selling bread.

“She bakes bread in the old European style,” Colón said.

They were married on December 31, 2015. He had been a widower for the previous three-and-a-half years. Colón is also the father to 15-year-old twins, Elise and Mónica, who are freshmen at Live Oak Classical School.

His title is coordinator of worship initiatives in Baylor University’s Department of Spiritual Life. He wears several hats in that role, which he explained to Wacoan writer Kevin Tankersley when they met in Colón’s office on a quiet Tuesday afternoon during spring break. Colón, a native of El Salvador, mentioned two projects he’s involved in: a music education program in his home country as well as a documentary film, for which he composed the music, about the deaths of immigrants along the Texas-Mexico border. He also discussed how the Beatles helped him learn English.

WACOAN: How long have you been at Baylor?

Colón: I have been at Baylor at this job for over three years. Before that I had been doing several projects with Baylor since I moved back to Waco. I’ve been doing projects for about eight years. I was organizing some concerts for Armstrong-Browning Library. I also had an affiliation with the [Baylor] Institute for Studies of Religion.

WACOAN: Were you at Baylor previously?

Colón: Yes. I went to Baylor in the ‘90s and got my master’s [in music, piano pedagogy].

WACOAN: Where did you go then?

Colón: I lived in Florida for about eight years. I worked as a music teacher and as a church musician. A few years in Orlando and a few years in Tallahassee.

WACOAN: And what do you do now at Baylor?

Colón: I work here in the [Department] of Spiritual Life as coordinator of worship initiatives. I help both the chaplain and the director of Chapel, Burt Burleson, and Ryan Richardson. I also help the chaplain with liturgical support for most of the services that happen at Baylor outside of Chapel.

And the third thing, I am now coordinating the alternative Chapel services at some of the residential communities and colleges on campus. Students can go and attend shorter daily services instead of going to the Waco Hall Chapel.

WACOAN: How old were you when you moved to the United States from El Salvador?

Colón: I left El Salvador when I was 14 years old. I left during the war. I left as a refugee of war to Guatemala City, [Guatemala,] where my mother sent me to some friends and relatives. I went there thinking I was going to stay for a couple of weeks, and I stayed for five years. It was then that I kind of turned to music intensively and as a vocation.

When I was 19, I came to college in the United States. I went first to Belmont [University] in Nashville, Tennessee. They have a very good music program. A lot of the professors there at the time, and I think it’s still the case, were Baylor grads. They steered me in that direction.

WACOAN: Before you got into music after you moved to Guatemala City, how involved in music were you?

Colón: Not much. My music education started on my 15th birthday. That’s when I had my first piano lesson at a music conservatory in Guatemala City. Prior to that I had been very interested in playing music, but I lived in a small, little town. The time when I went to elementary school, we didn’t have much music. My principal would come and play her violin and teach us songs. Then I didn’t have any music at all during middle school. Around age 12, I started hanging out with the Baptists. They had choirs. They had pianos, organs. There were more instruments. I started just mostly just playing [piano] by ear and learning songs in church.

WACOAN: Before you started hanging around the Baptists, what was your faith background?

Colón: I was born in a Roman Catholic family. I was born and grew up in a time of upheaval in my country. There was a lot of discontent that was going around with the establishment and was also connected with the church. At this time, maybe in the late ‘70s, a lot of conversions started to the evangelical faith.

To give you an example, when I became a Baptist at age 12, Protestants in my country were about 3 percent. We are now 50 percent. El Salvador has an unusual high number of Protestants. But at the same time, I feel that the Catholic Church is also very strong now that it’s gotten past the upheaval of politics during that time.

WACOAN: How did your music education proceed after that first piano lesson?

Colón: It so happened that the first year I was in Guatemala City, I couldn’t go to a regular school. We left [El Salvador] in a hurry. We left in the middle of a battle. There was a truce, and we were allowed to leave. I didn’t have my transcripts with me, so the only thing I could study that year at the public music school was music.

It started very intensively with taking lots of classes. They had a music library, so I would listen to a lot of music. I was from a small village, so I distinctly remember one day I checked out some LP recordings. One of them was Bela Bartok, and the other one was Johann Sebastian Bach, the genius of the baroque and the genius of the modern. Somewhere during that week I decided I wanted to write music, even though I didn’t know how to yet.

It was incredibly impacting for me to start listening to music. I had hardly heard any instruments past the violin I mentioned or the piano at my church, maybe a little organ. Then the conservatory where I took lessons in Guatemala was one of the places where the national symphony practiced. So here I was now listening to orchestra music. It was a time where the first year I would practice five hours a day. I made a lot of progress, then I was able to go to a Christian school for my high school. I only had to go to school in the mornings, so I continued my conservatory education for a few more years, going in the afternoons to the conservatory.

WACOAN: How long did it take from you saying you wanted to write music to get to the point where you were actually writing music?

Colón: In my case I remember I was writing piano pieces within a year. And maybe within three years I was beginning to write some choral music. In my case it was music for church choirs. Most of my writing is for church choirs. In more recent years I’ve been writing also for concert choirs in combination with orchestra or for choir and orchestra.

WACOAN: It fascinates me that one person can write a piece of music that the woodwinds and the strings and the brass and percussion can all play, and it sounds beautiful. How do you go about doing that?

Colón: It’s like anything else. It can be done with proper training.

When a young person, for example, starts playing the piano, generally they have the advantage that the piano has a very large register of music. Almost every instrument that you hear in the orchestra is kind of contained in the range of the piano. As you go to college and graduate school, you take classes where they teach you what every instrument can do best. When you go to a concert, you can hear an instrument like the flute imitate birds. The bassoon can sometimes sound humorous. The strings can sound lush and romantic or just sustain very soft sounds. During school and also by listening to a lot of music, you cultivate your imagination in your ears. You begin to understand what every instrument does best.

WACOAN: You said you left El Salvador during a battle. How close were you to the actual fighting?

Colón: This was guerilla warfare, so at the time that I left it was in the middle of an offensive where they were attacking key cities. How far? It was outside my door. They were fighting in the streets, with bullets flying over our heads, over our roofs.

Days before we left the army broke into our house because they thought we were harboring guerillas there. We were held at gunpoint while they searched our house. I remember praying very intensely to God during that time guns were being pointed at us and asking if he [would let me survive], to let me live a life with purpose and meaning. I consider myself very blessed because I also learned that [sometimes] they would just kill the civilians if they were in doubt. They would kill the civilians and ask questions later. The irony was under immediate attack and very intense fire I count my blessings that they didn’t just decide to throw bombs in our direction, where they said they were being shot at from. Which is what they said, that there was shooting from the second floor.

WACOAN: Did you have brothers and sisters with you in Guatemala City?

Colón: Yes. I grew up with several siblings. They all had left before [me]. I joined them. Because I was the oldest, my mom was afraid I could be recruited by the guerillas or the army. She left me behind in Guatemala. She went back to El Salvador. Things had calmed down a little.

In the middle of another emergency my mother and my stepfather and my younger brothers left and came to the United States. That was another reason I wanted to come [to the U.S.] and study. But we were separated from age 14 to about age 19. That was one of the reasons why I couldn’t go back to El Salvador because my family had left. I tried to come when I was around 15, but I was denied a visa, so I couldn’t join my family until five years later.

WACOAN: Forgive my ignorance, but are things settled in El Salvador now?

Colón: That’s a good question. Peace treaties were signed in 1992 between the guerillas and the U.S.-backed government. We have more of a representative democracy now, but since the war, there has been deterioration and violence, so instead of having a civil war we have serious problems with gangs and gang violence. Unfortunately, postwar El Salvador has developed a reputation for some of the most notorious and violent gangs in the world.

WACOAN: Do you go back to El Salvador?

Colón: Yes. My mother retired about 10 years ago and is back in El Salvador. I go to see her very often, two or three times a year. I also have some projects there that I support, so I go and check on these projects. Sometimes I take Baylor students and faculty with me. I also take people from Waco and from my church.

WACOAN: What projects do you have going on in El Salvador? I know you’re trying to take music to children there.

Colón: The connection is a friend of mine from my hometown has a project in Aguilares, about 40 minutes sort of north of San Salvador. He has a church-based music academy. For about six or seven years we have been teaching music education and instrumental education to a group of children and youth. They go to a Baptist church in Aguilares, but a lot of these kids are in areas that are at risk of violence. We keep a group from about 12 to 20 [kids]. There are about eight or nine who have been with us from the beginning, but we have worked with 25 or 30 total. But none of them have joined any gangs. All of them from high school are heading to college. Obviously, it’s not because of something I’m doing or even my friend, but this church community has rallied behind these kids to encourage them, not only to excel well in the music, but also in the development of intellects and abilities too so they can be of help to the community.

WACOAN: What do you and your friend teach them from a music standpoint?

Colón: Almost everyone takes piano lessons. It’s easier to for us to teach everything else if they know piano. Then we teach theory. In addition, the instruments that we have developed are violin, clarinet and guitar.

My church here in Waco [DaySpring Baptist Church] has been very committed to helping, partnering with this church in Aguilares. Almost every year I take a group of people from DaySpring, and we also do an intensive, almost week-long music camp. We go to encourage development, but also to get updates on how they’re doing. We view it as a project and ministry of the church in Aguilares. We go there, and they invite us to go and help in their work. It’s something I remind everybody of very often: ‘This is not our project. This is the project of the local church there, and we go and partner with them as they need us.’

WACOAN: With all your duties at Baylor — Chapel and worship services and alternative Chapel — along with all the other things going on in your life in Waco, what keeps you involved with this music program?

Colón: I think that that you could attach the word ‘calling’ that connects with all the things that you mentioned already. Also, demands from us when we see a need and we have the means to meet that need, we step in. In this case we step in faith and try to help.
There are really serious, big problems in El Salvador, and there have been for years. Our church here, DaySpring, and several people here at Baylor, like Baylor Missions here in Spiritual Life, have supported this project. We believe educating people in music is also an extension of educating people in peace, to live in peace and harmony.

And it is also a way to make a difference by giving the tools of education. And with music comes a set of skills. They have to learn how to work in teams. They have to learn how to solve problems because music is constantly full of challenges. They have to measure success and progress by starting something from nothing, an instrument from scratch. Then they can apply that. It’s a way of education that makes a difference, makes an impact in the community so that kids can choose peace and not the violence around them.

And the other reason is that these kids are leading worship at their churches. Not only this church in Aguilares, but other churches have benefitted from this program. We are raising a new generation of musicians that are helping making the worship of God more alive and a better quality in the congregation by the virtue of helping the music.

WACOAN: A couple of weeks ago I heard Emmett Price speak. He’s an ethnomusicologist who’s an expert on rap and hip-hop and gospel and culture and how all those things converge. He talked about how during World War II, soldiers on both sides would fight during the day then put down their weapons and come together at night to play jazz in clubs in Europe. That kind of sounds like what you’re hoping for in El Salvador.

Colón: I hear stories like that and think it would be nice if they would just keep holding on to their instruments and not retake the weapons during the day.

And our children in Aguilares have also participated in programs sponsored by European countries to play in orchestras or play in other music education programs. And some of the European teachers, the volunteers, have remarked that our kids are doing really, really well. I think one of the reasons that we do this in a church-based community is because there is something about the discipline and the values of music education that are very compatible with the values in the way of discipleship.

WACOAN: I read that you did the music for a documentary that was about the deaths of immigrants along the border. How did you get involved in that project?

Colón: The documentary is called ‘Lamento Con Alas.’ The translation is A Lament With Wings. This is a line that comes from a Salvadorian poem about a bird that is associated with the dead. Anytime the peasants in El Salvador would see this bird and hear its song, they would say that it is the song of a soul that is still in penance. The poet described the song of this bird as a lament with wings. And birds migrate from place to place.

So as we were having this migration from Central America, particularly these last two years, there was this mass number of unaccompanied minors. And we started hearing more stories of deaths along the Texas-Mexico border, people who tried to often cross in groups or small groups and cannot make it, especially during the summer months with the brutal weather.

That coincided with the fact that I knew that Dr. Lori Baker, a forensic anthropologist and professor here at Baylor, had been identifying the remains of people dying at the border for many years. We wanted to highlight the plea of the dying immigrants, but also feature Dr. Lori Baker’s work and this project that she has where she tries to collect DNA from remains of people who have died at the border and connect these remains with the family, the relatives, back in Mexico and Central America. This documentary was produced with support from the Office of Spiritual Life, so we showed it at Baylor Chapel. We also had another event where we showed it here at Baylor. Last summer Scientific American magazine did a feature on [Baker] and other anthropologists who are doing work identifying remains.

I think the big thing about the documentary is that I am hoping that people, regardless of their political stripes, can see it so that they can see [the people crossing the border are] real human beings, like you and I, dying these very lonely deaths in the middle of the desert, with the hopes that not only laws can be passed to help people who want to work legally in this country, but also for people to keep developing a vision to do development work in these countries that would discourage and prevent people from making this dangerous and perilous journey north.

WACOAN: You want there to be reasons for them to stay in their home countries instead of having to come to the United States to provide for their families.

Colón: Yes, precisely.

From that point of view, you can go back now to little programs like our music project that give people tools to develop an education, flourish as human beings where they are. That’s just a little project. There are lots of people doing projects, like teaching people crafts, organizing them. All of that is admirable, but we need much, much more at a scale that, unfortunately, only governments can develop. We need more development, more opportunities, on a large, large scale.

WACOAN: How do you go about convincing a government that development like that is needed? Is that even possible?

Colón: In a sense, yes. There are some precedents for that. For example, right now I know that the U.S. under the leadership of, I believe, Vice President [Joe] Biden, has been trying to develop a plan for the northern triangle of Central America — Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras — to do a program that is modeled after something that was done in Colombia.

If you remember, Colombia in the ‘80s and ‘90s was in similar turmoil with gangs and drugs and all kinds of crime-associated problems. Apparently, there was a concerted effort of several countries and the Colombian government that has helped them emerge from that situation. Colombia is much more prosperous and stable than it was 20 years ago. Vice President Biden has a program that has been modeled after the Colombia experience. They’re trying to apply some of this to El Salvador. That program included dealing with the crime and the corruption and the administration. It was a very comprehensive plan. But also projects like the one we’re doing [and] large development projects.

And incidentally, I will tell you this. I’m in a roundtable with several people from several disciplines here at Baylor who are trying to find a way to be involved in this triangle in Central America so we can maybe encourage and partner with different organizations so Baylor University maybe can be involved in the future, helping with some of these solutions.

WACOAN: What do you like about Waco?

Colón: I love Waco because it’s just a very rich and interesting place to live. The first thing I like about Waco is the people. Sometimes in my travels, when I go up north, sometimes people say to me their mental caricatures they have of Texas. Some of them are true. Some of them are not. I realized that when I tried to clarify what we do, what we believe, who we are here in a place like Waco, that it’s difficult to explain and difficult to explain why we like it and why we keep coming back.

But I would say that it’s a very diverse town. It’s a town that has a strong desire to keep emerging as a place where good education, good culture happens. It’s also a place where there are strong family values. You meet people who deeply care about their children, about their families.

I discovered Cameron Park about five years ago. I started three or four years ago mountain biking, and I realized how huge the park is. Now I walk the trails there.

I remarried on December 31, and my wife and I walk a lot along the river and in the park. We see a vibrant downtown. And the food industry is a live and fascinating experiment, just to watch. We have many more types of food here now than we did just a few years ago, thanks to the food truck phenomenon. And new restaurants are sprouting all over the place.

WACOAN: How big was your hometown?

Colón: When I grew up, it was a town of about 8,000 people. Now, it has about 25,000.

WACOAN: What’s the name of your hometown?

Colón: Chalchuapa. Incidentally, archeologists from El Salvador say that it’s the oldest continuously populated settlement in the Western Hemisphere. There have been people living there for 3,500 years. I grew up in this little town, and we would dig in our courtyard and find artifacts, little faces of Mayan gods from 500 years or 1,000 years ago.

Chalchuapa means ‘river of jade,’ so there is a lot of jade stones there. A lot of the Indian artifacts, the Colombian artifacts, that you find, are made of jade.

I grew up in an interesting little town. It had a little lake, rivers. You would step into a little eatery, and everybody would know everybody. I get the feeling that Waco is like that.

WACOAN: When you’re in your car, what kind of music do you listen to? Or do you listen to something besides music?

Colón: I listen to the news. Mostly, I listen to NPR.

On the way here today, I was listening to the Beatles. The Beatles helped me learn English.

WACOAN: How did that happen?

Colón: I just learned a lot of songs. I would get recordings and the lyrics and memorize them. I got the dictionary when I didn’t know [a word]. I was taking English classes, but I just memorized a lot.

My music listening is very eclectic. I try to listen to the great classical works. My daughters introduce me to their music. But that’s kind of dangerous territory. It might change, and if you start liking it, there’s the danger that you might spoil it for them. Because we share the same cloud, I guess, when I was looking for something to listen to today, I found Coldplay. Aside from that, I have been listening to Gershwin lately. I listen to some jazz. I don’t know if this is a singer that people know much about, but there is this woman called Aoife O’Donovan. She’s a solo artist, and she sings kind of like new bluegrass. For years she was lead singer in a band called Crooked Still. Like I said, very eclectic.

WACOAN: What kind of jazz do you like?

Colón: I gravitate toward the old jazz musicians: Chick Corea, [Dave] Brubeck, Miles Davis. Here and there on the public radio jazz shows, I listen to interesting new things. But it doesn’t captivate me like the old jazz players.

I also listen to a lot of choral music. Several people are writing very interesting choral music today, people like Eric Whitacre. He’s a famous composer right now.

WACOAN: Did Eric Whitacre do an online choir?

Colón: He did a choir with people from all over the world.

WACOAN: That’s good stuff.

Colón: What do you listen to?

WACOAN: I like jazz, blues, old country, like Willie Nelson. My Pandora playlist is pretty random. Old school hip-hop when I go running.

Colón: Now that you say that, I catch my girls listening to ‘Les Miz’ on Pandora.

WACOAN: You said that when the battles were going on outside your house, you prayed that if you survived, you would like a life with purpose and meaning. Do you think that’s been accomplished?

Colón: I think that will always be an ongoing prayer. At the end I think that it’s hard to measure by yourself, but I hope that one day, all of us can measure it not because of individual accomplishments, but because maybe on the way, what I did touched others.

A short answer would be that I am very grateful for the opportunities that I have been given, knowing that many of my generation did not make it. It’s a mixed answer I can give you.

Somebody asked me something similar, but I am grateful for the things that I have done, but I also knew a lot of people who are a lot more talented than me that didn’t make it, whose lives were cut short because of hate and other people’s decisions.

WACOAN: Are you reading anything good right now?

Colón: I am reading a book called ‘Father Elijah: An Apocalypse’ by Michael O’Brien. It’s a very fascinating book. I’m reading a collection of speeches by Gabriel García Márquez. Do you know who he was?

WACOAN: He wrote ‘One Hundred Years of Solitude.’

Colón: He has a book that collects his speeches, including his Nobel Prize acceptance speech. He said something very interesting, and I can leave you with this. He said [that] people say, ‘Why does the imagination flourish so much in Latin America? Why does Latin America have some of the best novelists and novel writers in the 20th century?’ He said [that] we have to use our imaginations because if we told you our real story, you would not believe us.

WACOAN: Is there anything else I need to know?

Colón: I was hoping we would have a good conversation, and now you know more than I tell anyone.