The Mothers of Santa Rosa de Agua – or how El Sistema really works

Alix Sarrouy’s 2018 article “Actores de la continuidad educativa en barrios de Venezuela: madres del núcleo Santa Rosa de Agua” presents an interesting portrait of a group of mothers who spend their afternoons waiting for their children outside a Venezuelan El Sistema núcleo. He concludes that they are a key element in supporting the núcleo’s activities and guaranteeing continuity between the music school and the community. This is not a surprising conclusion: others have made it before, specifically in relation to El Sistema (Pérez and Rojas 2013; Baker 2014), and also with regard to another Latin American social-educational program (Cid 2014), and it is familiar from studies of schooling more generally. But it is a sound idea and one that bears repeating.

Another valuable contribution of Sarrouy’s article is that it is rich in ethnographic detail, particularly quotations from conversations with the mothers. This richness allows the reader to appreciate how the author arrives at his conclusion, but also to make their own interpretation of the data and draw their own conclusions. In that vein, I was struck by just how much more the data tells us about Venezuelan-style “social action through music” than the analysis in the article.

The official account of El Sistema is that it “rescues the most vulnerable groups in the country” by instilling in them values such as discipline and responsibility. Furthermore, the claim is that these values are imparted by El Sistema to the children, and from there they spread outwards to the families and wider society. As Abreu put it in his much-watched and –quoted TED prize speech, thanks to El Sistema “the child becomes a role model for both his parents.” Yet Sarrouy’s data tell a different story.

The mothers that he studies are generally educated (the majority have a university degree), devout, and concerned with values and morals. Their mere presence outside the núcleo in the afternoons speaks volumes about their concern for their children’s education and well-being. Sarrouy’s conclusion underlines this point: the mothers play a vital supporting role, keeping the children off the street, making them presentable, and encouraging the home study that is necessary if they are to be properly involved in the núcleo.

These are not, then, “the most vulnerable groups in the country.” The families may be poor, but they are also organized and supportive. Furthermore, it is not El Sistema that is the primary source of values such as discipline and responsibility, but rather the families. Indeed, given the dependence on family support, one might argue that Venezuelan-style social action through music depends on the prior existence of such values, rather than creating them.

All in all, there’s not much “rescuing” going on here. Rather, what we see in Sarrouy’s material are children from conscientious and supportive families, and a change from one set of leisure activities that their parents consider unwholesome (hanging out on the street, playing with the computer, watching TV) to another activity that is considered more wholesome (playing music). One might regard this picture as generally A Good Thing while noting its distance from El Sistema’s grandiose claims.

Sarrouy’s evidence shows values flowing from the parents to the children (as one might expect) rather than the other way round (as Abreu claimed). As the author writes: “it’s the mothers and grandparents who insist on their children and grandchildren being dedicated, hardworking, and responsible.” Yet there is more.

The group of mothers constitutes an unofficial “union,” one of the roles of which is “to put pressure on the teachers who tend to miss lessons. The women meet and talk with the teacher, insisting on valid reasons. There are teachers who miss classes with unsatisfactory excuses, but the pressure that is put on them obliges them to turn up regularly, otherwise they will have to face the group of mothers, the director, and even the students, because they too become demanding.”

In other words, the families impart values such as responsibility to El Sistema, rather than the other way round. Rather than influence radiating out from the program to children to families, as the official story suggests, the dynamic that Sarrouy describes is the precise opposite: the mothers are the point of origin, and influence radiates from them to the children to El Sistema, culminating in the striking example of students policing their teachers. Though the author does not say this, his evidence directly contracts El Sistema’s official narrative.

There is also an important and obvious question that arises from this account, though Sarrouy does not ask it: what happens to children without supportive families – the ones who really might be described as more vulnerable and in need of rescuing?

Again, Sarrouy’s rich data provides the answer. He notes a preoccupation with physical appearance and dressing smartly in the núcleo, which he describes as a contrast with the surrounding neighbourhood of Santa Rosa de Agua. Outside, “there are many children playing in the streets of the barrio, shoeless and dirty.” He mentioned this to the mothers. They replied that the majority of families didn’t show much concern for their children. One told him: “they are above all single mothers who suffer from alcoholism and gambling; they prefer to spend the afternoons watching soap operas and they’re not concerned about their children, who spend their days in the street and become delinquents.”

So the visual contrast is not coincidental, but nor is it a consequence of “rescuing”; it is indicative of a pre-existing social difference between Sistema and non-Sistema children.

So, to repeat, what happens to the more vulnerable children without supportive families? They’re out on the streets. They don’t make it to the núcleo, because they don’t have anyone to take them and sit outside making sure they study properly and encourage them to practise at home.

The implications for understanding El Sistema’s true effects are significant. The program appears here not as a means of social inclusion, but rather of social differentiation and stratification. As described by the mothers and by Sarrouy, it separates out the relatively advantaged children from the relatively disadvantaged and serves predominantly the former rather than the latter – meaning that it actually widens this social divide rather than narrowing it. The reader is left with the impression of a program that is not set up to “rescue the most vulnerable groups in the country” (unsurprisingly, given that it was not created with that intention) and, in relative terms, actively disadvantages them.

Support for this picture comes not just from my book but also from the Inter-American Development Bank’s 2016 study (neither of which Sarrouy mentions, curiously enough), which estimated the poverty rate among the El Sistema entrants as 16.7%, while the rate for the states in which they lived was 46.5%. In other words, the El Sistema participants in the IDB experiment were three times less likely to be poor than all six- to 14-year-olds residing in the same states. Consequently, the study “highlights the challenges of targeting interventions towards vulnerable groups of children in the context of a voluntary social program.” This conclusion matches Sarrouy’s data.

There are further broad points that can be drawn from the ethnographic material. One concerns the deficit model that explicitly underpins El Sistema’s philosophy. Deficit thinking (the notion that individuals are deficient and in need of fixing) is widely discredited today in the field of culture and development, leaving El Sistema as something of a dinosaur in this sphere. Sarrouy’s data provides empirical evidence to suggest that it does not describe accurately what takes place; his article shows that it is community social assets that drive the Sistema model.

A final point concerns the frequent linking in the global North of El Sistema with progressive notions such as “social change” and “social justice.” Progressivism rests – to put it in very simple terms – on the idea that society is flawed, hence the need for “social change.” For example, progressives often regard social structures of gender and race as unfair, and thus in need of transformation.

This is not what we see in El Sistema. For example, Sarrouy writes: “A certain responsibility to act as a masculine figure falls on the male teachers. ‘With my students I try to be authoritarian and demanding, but only after establishing a relationship of trust,’ explains the double bass teacher. The teachers say they feel a certain weight of parental responsibility, as an exemplary figure. They try to transmit notions of ‘commitment,’ of ‘responsibility,’ setting out ‘objectives to fulfill’ for their students.”

Whatever one’s view of this notion of the teacher’s role, it is clear that the dynamic here is conservative rather than progressive. There is no questioning of parental or gender roles. The underpinning ideology is not that social norms are problematic, but rather that they are weakened and need to be reinforced. This is classic conservatism, which revolves around ideas such as strengthening family values and law and order. The mothers believe in the value of discipline, and they take their children to the núcleo because they regard it as a place where that value is reinforced. El Sistema is focused on social reproduction rather than social change.

In sum, Sarrouy’s article illustrates the value of ethnographic research on social action through music. It gives the reader access to the data and allows them to draw their own conclusion. And in this case, it shows up (once again) major fault lines in the official narrative of El Sistema, ones that have been clearly exposed by earlier studies yet continue to be largely ignored by the sector and even by some academics.

(full references can be found in my article “Who watches the watchmen? Evaluating evaluations of El Sistema”)