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Orlando Sentinel

Band Marches To Its Own Drummer

by Iván Román

December 25, 2000
Copyright © 2000 Orlando Sentinel. All Rights Reserved.

GUAYANILLA, Puerto Rico -- They practiced marching in formation in the blazing sun for weeks to live up to this newest challenge. But the school marching band from this small Caribbean coastal town is getting used to pioneering firsts. The Guayanilla School Band, a rarity in Puerto Rico when it was established 25 years ago, was the first marching band from the island in Philadelphia's Thanksgiving Day Parade in 1996.

It was the first from the island to be part of Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade in 1998. In freezing temperatures and pouring rain that year, the cheerleaders threw off their ponchos and danced for the crowd to a Latin beat.

As they board five different flights to Los Angeles on Tuesday, they are set to be the first Latin American marching band to entertain an estimated 350 million people in the world-renowned Rose Parade on New Year's Day in Pasadena, Calif.

Besides the "Christmas on Parade" medley, they'll be giving the crowd a little salsa -- with the punchy Puerto Rican classic "El Cumbanchero" and a hip-shimmying piece called "Cuban Coffee."

"We're representing Guayanilla, Puerto Rico and Latin America," said ninth-grader Emmanuel Vazquez, 14, who plays the trumpet. "You have to know what you're doing, because you're not going to go there and do a bad job. We have to give our best."

Bandmate Juan Carlos Maldonado, 15, who marches with a xylophone strapped to his waist, chimed in. "Many people here in Puerto Rico don't even know Guayanilla exists. This will get us known."

The band from this town of about 28,000 people has already had a lot of U.S. exposure. It has made four trips to the Puerto Rican Day parade in New York and put in an appearance at the 1995 Fourth of July parade at Disney World in Orlando.

Being in the Rose Parade, seen by 1 million spectators on the street and another 350 million or so in 80 countries on TV, is like being in a Super Bowl for marching bands. They not only join 23 other bands in the parade, but they also are among six bands chosen to perform at the Rose Bowl game that afternoon.

Today's band, 210 members strong, has come a long way since the days when band founder and director Edgardo Arlequin got 12 students together in 1975. After struggling to get instruments, he had them marching in black jeans and T-shirts. "This is the crowning achievement of all our efforts in the last 25 years," said publicity volunteer Angela Damian, one of those original 12, whose daughter is now one of the band's 25 cheerleaders. "We were swimming against the tide and had everything against us, but finally it all worked out."

The main problem is still money. It costs about $250,000 to get the 210 intermediate and high school students and 40 adults to Los Angeles, then lodge, feed and cart them around. Tourism and Education officials finally came up with the cash after the band's plight came to their attention via a popular radio show.

Fernando Fernandez, a parole officer with three daughters in the band, took charge of travel logistics. Other volunteers helped with such things as ordering $15,000 worth of special marching shoes. "For me it's a source of pride and satisfaction," Fernandez said. "These kids have worked real hard to get to this. And getting this exposure by participating in one of the best parades in the United States is amazing."

That pride fills many who have seen the band grow. "It's something I've wanted since I was little," said 10th-grader Angelika Rivera, 15, who plays clarinet. "When my grandmother worked in the library next door, I wanted her to open the gate all the time so I could come see the band practice. Now I'm part of it. How cool!"

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