El Salvador band takes hard road to Pasadena

Times Staff Writers

A five-day trek from El Salvador to Pasadena was not supposed to be part of the Rose Parade route for the 230-member youth marching band Nuestros Angeles de El Salvador.

But plane tickets were out of the question after a big chunk of the band’s funding fell through just weeks before the parade.

What followed was an odyssey by bus that included thousands of miles on the road, plus two excruciating days in limbo on the border of Guatemala and Mexico.


But they made it, rolling into town Sunday only hours before their slot at Bandfest, the annual showcase of Rose Parade bands held at Pasadena City College this weekend. Organizers said the show drew more than 5,000 people.

“Uno, dos, tres -- brinca!” band members cried during the Salvadoran song “La Bala”: “One, two, three -- jump!”

Saul Perez, one of the band’s directors, said it would have been a crushing defeat if the group had not made it to Pasadena. The youth members practiced for more than a year, went through a rigorous selection process and were poised to represent their country on the world’s stage at Tuesday’s parade.

But problems began when 30 members of the group could not even begin the journey because they didn’t receive visas. Then the band canceled their flights because their budget was still short $200,000. They set out instead in a caravan of five buses on Christmas Day.

“When we left, we thought the trip would take three days,” Perez said. “It was a tale of many difficulties.”

As his band and others from the United States and around the globe played Sunday, volunteers were busy setting up Pasadena’s streets for the onslaught of spectators, parade organizers said.

Beginning at noon today, those looking for good viewing spots can reserve a space along the parade route -- as long as their belongings are not left unattended.

The list of approved camp-out items is short: Lawn chairs, sleeping bags, blankets and small barbecue grills are allowed. Tents, mattresses, couches, ladders, boxes and umbrellas are not.

Lt. Lisa Perrine said Pasadena police will be watching for people illegally selling goods or spaces along the route. Spectators who use horns or noisemakers or throw Silly String, marshmallows, flowers or other materials could also be cited, she said.

About 1,200 police officers will be along the parade route, Perrine said.

At least two groups of protesters are expected to attend the parade. Peace activists from the White Rose Coalition said they plan to demonstrate along the route to demand the end of the Iraq war and the impeachment of the president and vice president. Several other groups intend to protest the Beijing Olympics float to criticize China’s human rights record.

Protesters will be arrested if they get in the way of other spectators or interfere with the parade route or floats, said Pasadena Police Department Cmdr. Paul Gales.

Jairo Mauricio Henriquez, 18, is a drummer in Nuestros Angeles de El Salvador and said he’s excited to perform at Tuesday’s parade.

“When they first told us that we were chosen to go to the parade, I said ‘No way. You’re lying!’ ” he said. “The trip was a little difficult. But it shows our strength.”

Standing behind Henriquez during rehearsal Sunday was a crowd of more than 500 people, most of whom were local immigrants from El Salvador who came to support the band. As they practiced, the crowd chanted “El Salvador! El Salvador!” and cheered.

Hector Martinez, 55, said he came to Sunday’s Bandfest from Pomona to support Nuestros Angeles. Their performance, he said, was not just about musical talent, but about representing Latinos around the world.

“I’m proud to come out here and support them,” Martinez said. “They are representing Latinos everywhere, and it’s the first time” a band from El Salvador has been in the parade, he said.

On Saturday, before the group had arrived, Los Angeles’ Salvadoran community held an all-day fundraiser at the corner of West 3rd Street and South Bonnie Brae Street near MacArthur Park.

Sprawled throughout half of the grocery store parking lot at Liborio Markets were stands selling pupusas, coffee and Salvadoran flags.

Rosa Aragon, a 50-year-old native of La Hachadura in El Salvador, said the band represents a positive future for the youth of El Salvador. She wants their image to be on display to the American public, not the image of the El Salvadoran gang MS-13 that she says is all many people know of her homeland.

“It’s a personal mission to get them here,” she said. “Our country has had many problems, but these kids are the pride of who we are because they show our nation has talent, are educated and doing something positive with their lives.”

Alonso Perez, 37, is a truck driver from El Salvador who said he usually cannot afford to donate money, but gave $50 to the band.

“It’s the best advertisement you could have for El Salvador,” he said. “Everyone knows about this parade but not about the good of our country.”

The group from El Salvador had a tumultuous journey to the parade, but other groups also had to forge their own paths to Pasadena.

Cathryne Miller, a 14-year-old flutist from Florida’s Niceville High School Eagle Pride Marching Band, said Sunday that she and her bandmates were responsible for helping to raise the hundreds of thousands of dollars needed to get the group to the parade.

“We bagged groceries and held a dodge ball tournament,” Cathryne said.

Dustin Steplock, head drum major for the Burlington Teen Tour Band from Ontario, Canada, said his group has done similar fundraising over the past year.

He has never played on a stage as big as the Rose Parade, and he said he can’t wait.

“There’s a lot of nerves right now,” Steplock said. “But it’s mainly from the excitement.”