• Natalia

Youth theater program promotes health

For a long time, I’d heard about a partnership between the San Diego Opera and the La Maestra Foundation in City Heights. Last September, I finally got to see youth from the La Maestra Center for Youth Advancement perform at the City Heights Library Performance Annex. The goal is to empower youth to speak up about their feelings so that they will become expressive adults who are able to advocate for their health and avoid the pitfalls of complications due to fear of going to see a doctor.

Participating youth from City Heights come from low-income households. Many are new to this country and some are refugees, asylum seekers and immigrants who have been displaced due to conflict and disaster.

Students performed two plays written by alumni, portraying issues that reflect their community. One of the plays told the story of a family facing eviction, and described how unity helped them overcome this challenge. The diverse student jazz group, La Maestra Maniacos, led by Bill Caballero also performed a lively set between plays.

Before the show, I had a conversation with Norman Paraiso from La Maestra, John Gabriel from the San Diego Opera, and student actor Karina Fisher, to ask them about this unconventional, yet powerful, partnership.


Actor 1: We have to be gone by the beginning of February. Actor 2: Why? What happened? Norman Paraiso: Today's event is a collaboration with La Maestra's Center for Youth Advancement and the San Diego Opera. And we are here to perform skits and music that has been written by kids and played by kids. John Gabriel: What I'm really excited about for tonight is the fact that an anchor arts institution like San Diego Opera has partnered really deeply and really significantly with an anchor social services institution like La Maestra Foundation. Together, the youth in this program get the best of both worlds. They get high quality arts instruction along with all of the wraparound social services support and ongoing daily support from La Maestra's staff. Norman Paraiso: San Diego Opera came out to do a site visit and found that our center was key to working with kids in City Heights. So we came up with a project to teach them theater and music and have them write and produce everything that they've written. The impact lies in them being able to tell their stories, them being able to show people how they feel and what they feel. Karina Fisher: I started off just like a regular old kid that didn't even know what they wanted to be when they grow up. And I found this theater program and I found out maybe I could be an actor someday. John Gabriel: That deep connection with the youth of City Heights that La Maestra has had for a number of years lays the foundation for San Diego Opera to engage with them meaningfully in a safe space, and tonight, in a public space like the City Heights Weingart Library Performance Annex.


*Wraparound Services are defined as services driven by the needs of the family and youth, designed for youth with complex needs. Services help keep families together by providing support at home and in the community. Services help families with their mental health needs, food security, tutoring, and college and career readiness just to name a few. (National Wraparound Initiative).

To learn more about the La Maestra Center for Youth Advancement visit: http://lamaestragenerations.org/

Special thanks to Norman Paraiso at La Maestra Foundation, John Gabriel at the San Diego Opera, and to the San Diego Creative Youth Development Network, a coalition of youth, providers and partners dedicated to harnessing their collective strength to help young people in the San Diego community reach their full potential.

Video produced by Ernesto Munoz at the Media Arts Center San Diego for the Speak City Heights initiative.

© 2020 Natalia Valerdi-Rogers for Arts+Culture San Diego.

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