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Band to represent Panama for first time in Rose Parade history

By James Barragan

9:57 PM PST, December 31, 2013

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Every year, 14-year-old Victor Rios would watch the Rose Parade on a television set in his home in the city of Chitre, Panama, marveling at the floats and bands.

He never imagined he would attend the parade in person.

Then one day in October 2012, Irving Rodriguez Bernal, the band director at Rios’ school, called his students in for a meeting.

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He had a defeated look on his face and the students grew nervous. They had been waiting for months to hear whether they’d been accepted as participants in the parade.

“You know, you should be proud just to have been considered for this parade,” Rodriguez Bernal began.

Suddenly, his demeanor changed. He flashed a smile and told them they’d been chosen to participate in the parade, beating out 105 other bands for the coveted spot.

 “I was stunned. I had no words to describe it. I just turned around and hugged the person next to me,” said Rios, who is a trumpet player in the Banda Herberto Lopez del Colegio Jose Daniel Crespo in Chitre.

The selection was a dream come true for Rios and for many of the students in the band as well as for their families and millions of Panamanians –- the band will be the first representative from the Central American nation in the parade’s history, Rodriguez Bernal said.

The band will play traditional Panamanian songs throughout the length of the parade, including folk songs that will be performed by the school’s dance troupe.

“We’re extremely proud of them because not only are they from Panama, they are from our city, and they’re there to represent not only Panama but all of Latin America,” said Yadira L. Castillo, a Panamanian who grew up in Chitre but now lives in Corona.

Castillo, 52, who attended the school where the band comes from, said she was so moved by its participation in the parade that she started to cry when she saw a news report on the band on a local TV news station.

It brings back memories of the city where she spent her childhood, Castillo said.

She remembers the four years she spent at the school and how the band used to parade through the streets of the city playing their tunes for the town’s citizens.

She lived two blocks away from the school and still visits her family in the area. In December 2012 she attended her niece’s graduation from the school.

On Tuesday, as she watched the band’s last practice before the Rose Parade, she ran into several familiar faces including one of the drummers who is the son of a family friend.

Margarita Moreno, 46, thought the event was important enough to travel all the way from Orlando, Fla., to witness it.

“For us it’s an immensely huge honor that Panama and Latin America are being represented by this school,” said Moreno, who graduated from the school in 1984.

She moved to the United States eight years ago, she said, but her love for her country remains strong and she never forgets her alma mater.

But the band may not have gotten here without some good luck and a lot of help from the Panamanian government, which provided a majority of the $450,000 required for the band’s trip and hospitality.

“This has been wonderful not only because it’s the first time many of us are visiting the United States but also because we’ve been able to take the band to places like Disneyland where they played for the Panamanian community and other Rose Parade events where they are playing to represent the country,” said Plenis Calvo, a member of the school’s parent’s organization, who said the school’s parents were thankful to the government for its support.

Rios, the 14-year-old trumpet player, said that participating in the parade, which he has always considered one of the best band competitions in the world, has been life-changing.

During his time in the United States he has visited Disneyland and grown to like the country’s people who he finds to be happy and upbeat. The streets are always clean here and the burgers are much bigger than in his homeland and have many more fries in their combos, he said.

But he’s also been thrown off by one thing: the weather, which is much colder than in his hometown and has led to chapped lips, which complicate his trumpet playing.

His mother, Prudencia “Puchy” Osorio, who traveled with the band, says the band has kept her child on the right track.

“I would implore people to support this type of activity because it helps keep the youth focused on something positive and away from negative influences,” Osorio said.

Rodriguez Bernal, the band director, prides himself on this point. At the school’s last graduation, the two students with the highest GPA were a saxophonist and a trumpet player for the band and the current year’s highest GPA is also a member of the band.

But more importantly, the band has given people in the city a source of inspiration.

“Looking at the Rose Bowl from Panama, it’s something so far away and so unattainable that people were incredulous when they found out we had been selected,” he said.

But since then, support for the band has poured in and the band hopes to represent the country well.

“It’s a great pride to be here. The theme this year is 'Dreams Come True' and that’s exactly what this is,” Rodriguez Bernal said. “And we hope that this isn’t the last time. We hope to come back.” 

[For the record 12:30 p.m. PST Jan. 2: An earlier version of this post misspelled the name Banda Herberto Lopez was misspelled as Banda Heriberto Lopez.]

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Twitter: @James_Barragan

james.barragan@latimes.com