Escriban Family

God has answered one of my most fervent prayers.  When I came to Sandy Creek three years ago, I left behind some good friends, none better than the Escriban family, left to right above, Daniel, Raquel, Shalomi, and Josué with their friend and fellow musician, David Peralta.  The second picture is of 10 month old Josiah, the latest addition to the family. He doesn’t yet play any instruments or sing… he gets by just being cute.  The family story is incredible. Their faith and courage in the face of daunting obstacles is inspiring. The response and support of colleges, church communities (and) at times, entire towns in both the US and Canada fills me with hope and admiration.  Raquel and family are wonderfully talented, devoted to Christ, the church and all of God’s creation.  My prayer has been simple, to see my friends again, to hear them sing. And maybe, just maybe, get a chance to sing with them one more time.  God does work in mysterious ways. The family suddenly had time because Raquel has been out of work (she’s a nurse at Olean Hospital) because she has not received her work visa (it is two months late). They have been in the country for five years and she has worked as a nurse for the hospital all through the pandemic, but still she waits while the family is once again without income through no fault of their own.  So we are bringing them to Sandy Creek UMC on Sunday, August 29th, where they will play for our morning worship. Afterward, we will have a picnic luncheon provided by the Sandy Creek UMW which will serve as a meet and greet with the family. Then they will play a full concert from 3-5pm. This concert will be advertised across 5 towns and we are praying for a full house. A freewill donation will be taken to support the present financial needs of the family.  The article below appeared in the Olean Times 3 years ago and is reprinted with permission.  It is an excellent read. 

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When Raquel Acevedo/Escriban makes music, every movement is like a prayer. 

Her brow knits when she sings high into her chest voice, as she did weeks ago while playing the worship song she wrote. Her fingers took measured strokes on her guitar in her Houghton apartment. 

“Tú me llamas si no tengo palabras,” she sings with her husband, Daniel Escriban, while family friend David Peralta plays viola. “Solo lágrimas derramo de ti.” 

Acevedo is telling God that when she has no words, he speaks for her. And because of that, she can only weep at his power and grace. 

That deep faith and musical talent has been with Acevedo since she was a child in the jungles of Venezuela, one of six in her missionary family. She used both to build a music program for hundreds of indigenous children that became known throughout her country and was studied by Harvard University. 

“I gave everything to the children,” she said. “They were my everything.” 

But then, three circumstances crashed down on Acevedo. First, her outspoken beliefs — for gender equality and against abuse — brought to a head tensions between her and the indigenous people she had dedicated her life to. Next, a law enacted in 2015 by the government mandated that non-indigenous people could not live in indigenous villages. 

Finally, an economic crisis that had been festering in Venezuela for half a decade exploded. Starvation, crime and civil unrest became rampant in the country, with the United Nations’ Refugee Agency estimating this year that $46 million in foreign aid will be needed just to begin helping those displaced. 

Acevedo made it to Allegany County with her family in 2017 as a Houghton College student, and now attends Jamestown Community College. More than 2,700 miles away from the place she thought she would die, Acevedo and her family are scratching out a new life. They are building connections, providing free music to several area churches while each go to school and work as visas allow. 

And Acevedo is praying, every day, that God will provide enough for them to stay. 

“It’s like finally, we got home after many, many years and many places,” she said. 

MUSIC IN THE JUNGLE 

Leaving Venezuela was not Acevedo’s dream. 

Her father, a Seventh-day Adventist minister, brought his family to Canaima National Park. They were tasked to live as missionaries among a village of Pemon people in the southeastern tip of the park, near Guyana and Brazil. 

Acevedo developed a love of music under the instruction of her father, singing and playing violin as part of their worship services. By the time she turned 15, she began teaching the indigenous children how to read and write using simple songs. That’s when she noticed that many had innate musical abilities. 

She was teaching kids as young as 4 and as old as her own age, using songs that soon became full-length choral pieces. Acevedo raced to learn ahead of her students. 

“I didn’t learn music from any college or anybody. I just composed the music there in the jungle, and I learned with them,” she said. 

The choir first began performing in camps in the park to an international audience, and grew into a choir and orchestra. They eventually made at least five CDs, with Acevedo being asked to do television interviews. 

By 2009, many people were interested in Acevedo’s group, including officials with El Sistema, the common name of the government’s system of youth orchestras and choirs in Venezuela. They began funding Acevedo’s Canaima Indigenous Youth Orchestra, helping her eventually serve more than 900 children. 

Her efforts came to the attention of Enrique Márquez, founder of MESDA Group (Music Education for Social Development Agency), which was established as part of a fellowship with Harvard University. He got in contact with Acevedo and partnered with her for three years. 

“The question they had was, ‘How is it possible that indigenous children with no contact with Western European music, that they are playing that music so well?’” Acevedo said. 

Samuel Marchan, a 20-year music educator in New York City, was part of the team of musicians who annually travelled to Canaima for a few weeks to assist with instruction. He said Acevedo’s efforts were astonishing and much needed, though he worried at times she neglected herself as she prioritized the music program. 

“There is no opportunity for those kids there,” Marchan said. “She was giving them another way of life.” 

HEART OF DARKNESS 

But to pursue her passion, Acevedo had to sacrifice her freedom. 

In 2000, Acevedo’s father was called to Curacao in the Caribbean. Her options were to stay in the village with the music program she loved, or move by herself to Canada. 

She still vividly recalls the day her path was decided. 

“It was the worst day of my life,” she said. 

Coming from church, Acevedo arrived to her home with candle light flickering. She walked into a room of people, including her parents and village leaders, who all turned to look at her. 

“Then my father said, ‘OK Raquel, we are talking about your future here.’” 

Acevedo listened to the plan. Per village law, she could not live by herself as a single woman, so the chief’s son — a relative of her current husband, Escriban — had agreed to marry her. 

“I’m not marrying you,” she said she shouted at the chief’s son. “I was very loud and upset, and I was crying, and I left the house.” 

She remembers sobbing all night as she walked through the grass of the savannah, gazing at the river and forests she loved. She hadn’t even had a boyfriend before. 

“I was not ready to get married,” Acevedo said. “Even at almost 18, I was not ready to start a life as a wife.” 

But more significantly, she could not abandon the members of her choir, who begged her to stay. 

“I said OK, whatever you want,” she said. 

“Women have to be completely submitted, or they hit them,” she said, smacking her palm. “And I was not the kind of woman who submitted.” 

Acevedo’s father declined to comment on the events, but Acevedo said her parents have since apologized to her. 

After becoming a wife, Acevedo said the “machista,” hyper-masculine culture of the village was uncomfortable for her. 

She said not just her husband, but other men and women in the village abused her for “talking like a man.” 

She was also threatened for speaking out against physical and sexual child abuse. Acevedo said after she confronted a family who she believed had multiple members molesting one of her 9-year-old students, a group of men from the family surrounded her house to threaten her with machetes. 

“I saw many things that I don’t like,” she said of her years in the village. 

Acevedo found refuge in the choir.  “The love I could not find in my parents, the love I could not find in my husband, I found that love in them,” she said. “I was following my dreams, and I was not going to give up just because I am a woman and I am not indigenous.” 

And eventually, as she established her foundation that not only educated but also fed and clothed roughly 500 indigenous families, Acevedo said she began earning respect. She said once in a 2012 ceremony, she was even proclaimed “an adopted daughter of the jungle.” 

“That’s why I rejected so many opportunities, because I had a commitment with that village,” she said. “I told them, I married here to stay here, and I’m dying here.” 

However, Acevedo said the relationship crumbled once she officially divorced her first husband after 12 years of marriage, and by 2015, the Venezuelan government affirmed a mandate from indigenous leaders that non-indigenous people — including spouses — could not live on tribal lands. 

Then, after Acevedo spoke out against illegal gold mining operations in the region, she received a letter from her former home asking her to no longer visit. 

NO WAY BACK 

Acevedo and her family are part of the estimated 1.5 million people who have fled from Venezuela in the last few years, as economic turmoil has now turned into a humanitarian crisis. 

After leaving the national park, Acevedo recalled being forced to eat only cans of beets for dinner as food shortages became more common. 

While Escriban’s indigenous family are doing better than most because they are in the jungle, much state assistance has been reduced. Electricity and food are in short supply everywhere. 

“What money you have, you cannot pay for anything,” he said, referring to the near-worthlessness of the country’s currency, bolivars. Exchange rate estimates fluctuate daily, and the International Monetary Fund predicts inflation will spiral to 13,000 percent by the end of this year. 

The country’s calamitous state has been in the works since the death of former leader Hugo Chavez in 2013. His successor, Nicolas Maduro, has been accused of rigging elections and filling crucial federal departments with unqualified loyalists. 

Maduro’s authority has been further challenged by the massive dip in the country’s oil production. The industry accounts for 95 percent of export earnings, according to the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries, which reported in January that Venezuela’s oil production hit a 30-year low. 

However, civil unrest and murder rates have climbed. And as brazen as she is, there are many things even Acevedo will not discuss publicly for fear of endangering those still in Venezuela — or, as she calls them, people she has not yet been able to save. 

“I will never take my children back to Venezuela,” she said. “Over my dead body. I have no future there, not me and not my children.” 

OFF TO SCHOOL 

After all seemed lost for Acevedo, she got help from a Harvard connection — Marchan, who had been encouraging her to study in the U.S. for years. 

“I told her, if you want a better job, you have to get an education,” Marchan said. 

Through a Houghton College professor, he secured a Skype interview for Acevedo with Dr. Armenio Suzano Jr., dean of the Greatbatch School of Music and a native of Brazil. He was blown away, and immediately set up a chance for her to audition in front of a committee, which Acevedo also aced. 

“We were all amazed by the heart she brought,” he said. “She is a true musician.” 

With a scholarship from the university and help from a sponsor back home, Acevedo was able to secure an academic visa. 

Meanwhile, she had decided to propose to her former student, Escriban, who had supported her and her children throughout her life. 

“I told him, ‘I want you to come with us. You are our hero,’” she said. 

So Acevedo arrived in time for the 2017 spring semester at Houghton, with her family in tow. She studied there for two semesters, making the Dean’s List both times. 

Suzano said she was not only talented, but very thoughtful and helpful to other students. 

“Raquel brought a sense of deep-seated gratitude to the opportunity she was given, and she demonstrated that. She lived in a state of grace,” he said. 

Funding ran out for Acevedo to attend Houghton, as her sponsor began to suffer the effects of the faltering Venezuelan economy. 

However, she joined Escriban at JCC’s Olean campus, where he is studying to be a plumber. Escriban also switched her major to nursing, as she had often practiced makeshift medicine in the jungle. When asked why, she said to her, medicine is not that different than teaching music. 

“You are still helping people,” she said with a smile. 

Her children, Shalomi and Josué, attend Fillmore Central School and take private music lessons at Houghton. 

PRAYING TO STAY SAFE 

Even though Acevedo feels like she’s found home, it’s a balancing act to stay. The restrictions on her and Escriban’s visas hinder their ability to work outside of the college, and even that work is restricted. 

Meanwhile, the family estimates they need to raise about $20,000 this year to stay in the U.S., which includes paying for living expenses and filing government documents. And because they refuse to work illegally, they have had to turn to the community for support. 

That’s why Larry Russell, (then) pastor of the Caneadea United Methodist Church, is one of dozens of community members helping Acevedo, Escriban and Peralta as much as possible. 

He met the family when they volunteered to perform music for his congregation, and he still recalls hearing Daniel Escriban sing (as the rest of the family sang the back-up vocals) the Casting Crown’s version of “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” for the first time. 

“When he sang it,” Russell said, pausing as he fought back tears, “you just knew that God was in that room.” 

The family is now well-known throughout the area’s religious community, having played at more than a dozen local venues. Russell noted it’s rare to have such well-trained musicians in the area willing to donate so much of their time. Peralta alone served as a professor with El Sistema — where he met Acevedo — and as a violist with the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra under internationally-celebrated conductor Gustavo Dudamel. 

That’s part of the reason why Russell’s church and others recently worked together to host two concerts at the Palmer Opera House in Cuba, both beginning at 6:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, that feature the Esccriban family and friends. The performances are free and at-will donations will be accepted. 

After spending a lifetime giving, Acevedo is overwhelmed to be the one receiving. “We are blessed to be a part of this amazing place, I tell you,” said Acevedo softly, sitting in her Houghton apartment with her children beside her and Russell nearby. While Allegany County may have one of the lowest per capita income levels in the state, Acevedo and her family have found nothing but generosity — donations include their housing, the cars in the driveway, the armchair she sits in. 

“And we will never stop saying thank you,” Acevedo said.  “And neither will we,” added Pastor Russell, as the two chuckled together. 

*Masks Must be worn indoors*