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Borders & Heritage

Finding Harmony: Meet the Latina Conductor Breaking Barriers With Music

April 4, 2017

Paula Nava Madrigal started conducting almost by chance. She was a cellist in the orchestra at Universidad Autonoma de Guadalajara in Mexico. When their regular conductor became sick, she and her classmates took turns conducting.

“Someone [had] to do it,” she says. “And when I did it, I loved it!”

Not long after, Madrigal went to Mexico City to take her first conducting workshop.

“The role of the conductor is really to make sure that the composer’s written score comes to life,” explains tenor José Iñiguez, whose concerts Madrigal has been conducting. “From the rhythm to knowing when instruments crescendo, diminuendo, to [knowing] the depth of a score.”

After moving to the United States with her husband, a Seattle musician, Madrigal reached out to Iñiguez after learning of their shared love for classical music and their common cultural heritage. Iñiguez and Madrigal agreed to work together, with Madrigal conducting the Ballard Civic Orchestra to accompany Iñiguez. 

“[At] my first viewing of Paula conducting, I got emotional,” says Iñiguez. “It was — yes, of course, the music. Second, it was that she was bringing in Latino composers in these performances. Third, it was that she was a Latina, she was Mexican. She looked like me. Her parents were brought up like me.”


Madrigal started conducting during her time as a cellist in the orchestra at Universidad Autonoma de Guadalajara in Mexico.

Paula teaching music to immigrant youth in Seattle, WA. 

While she found an ally in Iñiguez, she was nevertheless a woman working in a field dominated by men.

“To be a conductor and to be a woman — it’s difficult,” she says. “I thought, here in the United States, I could find more women [conductors] — but no!”

Madrigal is one of a small number of female conductors in the United States. 

“To be a conductor, you have to be the boss,” says Madrigal. “There are some who feel, ‘Why is this woman always giving me orders?’” she says, laughing. “For women of color, it is [even] more difficult.” 

Apart from her own professional challenges, Madrigal quickly recognized that Latino youth face many barriers to learning classical music.

“For kids of color, it’s more difficult to have access to classical music or to music education,” she says.

“To be a conductor and to be a woman — it’s difficult.”

After settling in Seattle, Madrigal teamed up with her husband to provide free musical training to Latino and immigrant youth. The couple runs two free programs, teaching the World Youth Orchestra and Young Strings Project Outreach at Casa Latina. The programs are sustained by donations and grants.

“We provide the instruments; we provide the music stands. Everything is free [for the students].”

Given his own work to advance educational opportunities for Latino youth, Iñiguez sees another significance in Madrigal’s work. 

“What she represents is another aspect of our community.... Something that is rare for the Northwest: to have Latinos in classical music.”

Madrigal teaching a Young Strings Project Outreach class at Casa Latina in Seattle, WA. The program provides instruments and free music lessons to Latino youth.

Madrigal sees the impacts of these lessons beyond the instrument.

“They learn tools for life,” she explains. “You learn how to behave with your classmates — you need to be patient, you need to be part of something, you need to have discipline, you need to practice.”

An immigrant herself, Madrigal is inspired by the diversity she sees among classical musicians.

“In orchestras, you see people from all over the world. When you have different kinds of minds, skills — you are [stronger]. When you have different cultures, you are rich.”

“In orchestras, you see people from all over the world. When you have different kinds of minds, skills — you are [stronger]. ”

Paula Nava Madrigal rehearsing with the Ballard Civic Orchestra for 2016 Encanto, Tenor José Iñiguez.

At home, surrounded by musical instruments, Madrigal’s almost 2-year-old daughter is perched atop her mother’s lap as Madrigal studies a music score.

“This one is ‘Homenaje a Cervantes’ by José Pablo Moncayo; he was a Mexican composer,” she says. “We are performing it at our next concert,” she beams.

“The music makes me happy. It’s my life.”

Laila Kazmi

@Lailakaz — Laila Kazmi is a Northwest Emmy award-winning senior producer and writer at KCTS 9. Her first love is discovering and telling stories of diverse people, places and history. She has lived in Karachi, Bahrain, Chicago, and Seattle. At KCTS 9, Laila produces the series Borders & Heritage, featuring stories of immigrant and refugee experiences in the Pacific Northwest and has produced Reel NW, featuring independent films from and about the Pacific Northwest. Her video-stories have appeared on KCTS 9PBS NewsHour Art Beat, World Channel at WGBH, and KPBS in San Diego. Her articles have been published in PBS NewsHour Art BeatThe Seattle Times, Seattle PI, COLORLINES and Pakistan’s daily Dawn. Laila has a Master of Communication from the University of Washington.

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How greatit is to read a story like this.  Diversity!  Keep it up.  We must counter the hate.