Press Package

Austin American-Statesman

Communicating In The Universal Language

Published in Austin American-Statesman

By Kathy Blackwell

Wednesday, October 15, 2003

More than 100 children solemnly filed into the St. Elmo Elementary School cafeteria Tuesday and sat on the floor, not knowing what to expect from the man in the teal shirt and white pants holding a guitar.

A few minutes later, their serious expressions transformed into big, missing-tooth smiles as they yelled out songs such as the ever-popular "If You're Happy and You Know It," but with a multicultural twist: Most songs were partly in Spanish. During the performance, the pupils would almost seamlessly go back and forth between the two languages.

The man with the guitar, José-Luis Orozco, energetically guided them through a 45-minute singalong, something he's done countless times before with students all over the country.

Orozco, 55, is a bilingual educator and children's author who uses music to cross cultural boundaries and promote literacy. A native of Mexico City, he moved to California in 1970 to attend the University of California at Berkeley, where he received a bachelor's in development studies. He later earned his master's in multicultural education at the University of San Francisco.

But it was the education he received traveling the world with the Mexico City Boys Choir that shaped his life. From the age of 8 to 10 and then again when he was 13, he visited 34 countries, where the group lived with host families.

"That had the greatest impact on my life," said Orozco, who now has dual U.S. and Mexican citizenship.

Decades later, Orozco still travels a good part of the year from his home in the San Francisco Bay area, visiting classrooms and libraries across the country as well as Mexico and Puerto Rico. He's written award-winning children's books for Penguin Putnam Inc. and has recorded accompanying CDs.

"His music is widely used by elementary teachers and librarians all over the country," said Paola Ferate-Soto, youth services librarian at the St. John branch of the Austin Public Library. Orozco will end his three-day Austin visit today with a 10:15 a.m. performance at the library.

"Because he comes from California and he's renowned in the field of bilingual education, he's quite a treat to have," said Ferate-Soto, who expects a full house today. "We don't have famous people very often."

Orozco came to Austin before school started to train some of the district's teachers, and he returned Monday to do the same during the in-service day. During his sessions, he demonstrates how to use songs to teach basics such as the alphabet and days of the week in both languages.

On Tuesday, he performed before pupils and teachers at St. Elmo and Zavala elementary schools, a favorite part of his trips, he said.

"Music is a power," he said. "It's very festive. You get the big eyes and the big smiles. You make them feel free with the music."

At St. Elmo, Orozco asked for a show of hands to indicate who spoke Spanish and who spoke English. The raised hands indicated a Spanish majority, but the children seemed to have no trouble following his orders in both languages.

They blew kisses, danced the Macarena and "the swim" and laughed at their teachers as Orozco made them do animal sounds, many of which are different in Spanish than in English. Toward the end, they sang "This Land is Your Land" in each language.

"If you have two languages, two cultures, then you understand the world better," Orozco said.

kblackwell@statesman.com; 445-3694