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After doctors flee Guatemala, four children discover music, join Patel youth orchestra

BRANDON

With the wave of a baton, the music begins.

First the woodwinds, then the brass and the strings. Soon, a flowing melody emerges.

"Again," the conductor interrupts after an off-key note pierces the air.

More than a dozen young musicians readjust in their chairs. The members of the Patel Conservatory Youth Orchestra are used to repetition. These musicians, ages 7 to 20, are among the most talented and disciplined in the area.

Some have been training their entire lives. Many dream of going on to the top music schools and conservatories in the nation.

For four of them, it's a sharp contrast to the lives they led just a few years ago in Guatemala, where hitting the right notes paled in comparison to dodging kidnappers, evading gunfire and praying to make it through each day alive.

Fleeing to the United States, the Quixtan brothers and their family left behind everything they had worked toward for a completely unfamiliar world.

Now, eight years later, with the help of a stranger, they've not only mastered the language but have found an unexpected harmony in their new lives.

• • •

Luis, Francisco, Christian and Kevin Quixtan grew up in Guatemala, where violence and police corruption are common.

Their parents, Angel and Sandra Quixtan, were successful doctors with private practices. Perceived to be wealthy, they were preyed on by criminals.

The family witnessed tragedy daily, Angel Quixtan said — home robberies, children caught amid gunfire during the journey to school, women brutally attacked.

"My country is very dangerous," he said.

According to the U.S. State Department's website, "Guatemala has one of the highest violent crime rates in Latin America. In the first seven months of 2011, approximately 42 murders a week were reported in Guatemala City alone."

As a doctor, Sandra Quixtan often treated the victims and couldn't help but think of her own family's safety.

"I would get scared because I would start to think, 'When is my moment or my family's moment?' " she said.

The last straw came in 2004 when a man tried to kidnap Luis, the eldest son. With a visa in hand, Sandra fled to the United States with her four sons and daughter. Her husband stayed behind.

"It was my ego," he said. "I worked very hard to become a doctor and I didn't want to give it up."

Mother and children settled with family in Fort Lauderdale. Unable to practice medicine in the United States without a license, she found a job as a caregiver for an elderly woman.

Angel Quixtan, whom kidnappers threatened, reluctantly left his parents and his country to join them.

Because he also could not practice medicine, he picked up various jobs working at a carwash and painting buildings.

"It was hard because my hands were not used to that kind of work," he said. "I cried a lot. But it is still better than life in my country."

In search of work, the family moved to Dover. Sandra again became a caregiver; Angel continued to pick up odd jobs.

The children began to learn English at school while their parents watched and rewatched movies — first in Spanish with English subtitles and then in English with Spanish subtitles until they could understand the dialogue.

Still struggling to find permanent housing and feed themselves, the Quixtans sought help from Nativity Catholic Church in Brandon.

"I felt right at home," Angel said. "They invited us to the front of the church and said if we needed food we could come to the food pantry."

One week, when the family arrived at the church, a stranger took particular interest in them.

"He said, 'I live alone in my house because my wife died. If you want, we can try it out,' " Angel said.

The family moved in that day.

"I couldn't believe it," he said. "God sent us an angel."

That angel was Ismael Ramos.

• • •

Once enrolled in American schools, music came almost as easily as the language for the Quixtan children.

It didn't hurt that they had a staunch supporter at home.

Ramos had always loved music. Growing up in Puerto Rico, he never learned to play but taught himself how to repair instruments. With his children grown and wife gone, he poured his energy into supporting the children's talent.

"I had little self-esteem," said Francisco, 18. "Ismael was really amazed at how well I could play. He started cheering for me, became my biggest fan."

As the music grew sweeter, so did the relationship between Ramos and the Quixtans. Their temporary housing agreement became permanent. The kids started calling Ramos "Grandpa."

Ramos took them to Busch Gardens and to concerts. He bought them instruments and filled the home with music.

Slowly, the once timid and reluctant family began to feel at home in the new world around them.

"Before Ismael, we didn't really trust anyone," Luis said. "We used to stay home all the time."

Ramos taught them to trust.

"He made us feel more comfortable being close to somebody," Francisco said, "more comfortable to opening up."

Last May, at the age of 83, Ramos died.

But for the Quixtans, his lessons still live.

"If he could tell us anything, he would say 'stick together,' " Luis said.

• • •

The youth orchestra has had siblings in the program before, but it's rare to have four at once, said Stephen P. Brown, the orchestra's principal conductor.

"It's unusual, especially to have them all so close in age doing such similar things," Brown said.

The four auditioned last summer and received scholarships from the Patel Conservatory.

Though each plays multiple instruments, in the orchestra Luis, 19, primarily plays oboe; Francisco, clarinet; Christian, 16, bassoon; and Kevin, 14, French horn.

The family, now living in a home they purchased in Brandon, may even add a child to the list. The youngest, Sandra, 13, is just beginning to explore music and said she hopes to follow in the footsteps of her brothers.

As for adding more doctors to the family, Angel and Sandra are not concerned.

"I enjoy the music," Angel said. "I say, 'If somebody wants to be a doctor or a musician, that's fine with me.' "

Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Shelley Rossetter can be reached at srossetter@tampabay.com or (813) 661-2442.

After doctors flee Guatemala, four children discover music, join Patel youth orchestra 02/04/12 [Last modified: Saturday, February 4, 2012 3:31am]

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