Orquesta Northwest Empowers Latinx Youth Through Free Music Classes

Mao Hashio


Paula Madrigal came to Seattle in 2014  from Guadalajara, Mexico, where she started her career conducting. She also taught at the Autonomous University as a professor for several years. As a cellist, teaching artist and orchestra conductor, she has been involved in various projects, offering classical music experiences. 

But when she attended a couple of orchestra concerts and events in Seattle, Madrigal realized that the orchestras lacked abundant diversity.

“Nobody in the youth orchestras looked like me,” Madrigal said. “ I didn’t see any Latinos or African American kids in the orchestra.”

This experience inspired her to launch the World Youth Orchestra program for underserved Latinx and BIPOC youth in 2015. 

Brittney Ramirez (left) and artistic director Paula Madrigal (right) at the inaugural fundraising event in Town Hall Seattle on April 27, 2024. Although Ramirez is no longer part of the orchestra, she continues to support the World Youth Orchestra in various ways.  (Photo provided by Britteny Ramirez) 

Along with Mariachi, Ballard Civic Orchestra, and Cascade Conducting programs, the World Youth Orchestra is one of the main programs of Orquesta Northwest, a registered 501 (c)3 nonprofit organization based in Seattle. According to its website, since 2015, under the guidance of artistic director Madrigal, the World Youth Orchestra has offered free musical education and provided instruments to around 60 students aged 6-19 who specialize in strings, brass, and woodwind instruments.

According to a report by the League of American Orchestras, Hispanic or Latinx representation among orchestra musicians in the U.S. was 2.5%, and Black or African American representation was 1.8%  in 2014. Over the past 10 years, these numbers slightly increased to 4.8% for Hispanic/Latinx people and 2.5% for Black or African American people. Despite this progress, historically marginalized groups continue to be underrepresented in the orchestra field compared to the overall U.S. population. The data also shows the proportion of Black or African American, Hispanic or Latinx, American Indian, and Alaskan Native individuals remains significantly lower in every orchestra role.

Since 2015, Orquesta Northwest has received 70 city, county, federal, and private institution grants. Currently, Madrigal teaches children in beginner classes, and acting executive director Teo Benson teaches children in advanced classes weekly at Casa Latina Seattle.

Nicole Lemus, 8, joined the World Youth Orchestra in October last year. Her mother, Ana Lemus, came to the U.S. from El Salvador with her husband in 2015 to find better opportunities for their family. Ana Lemus found out about Orquesta Northwest on Facebook.

“It’s been a great opportunity to find the Orquesta Northwest because Nicole is enjoying learning music,” Ana Lemus said. “And the best benefit for us as parents is that it is totally free.”

According to Benson, there is no income requirement for joining the World Youth Orchestra. Additionally, the orchestra provides students with free instruments. Madrigal said anyone can join as long as there are enough instruments available. She said they usually accept new students in October. 

Most of the students Madrigal teaches, including Nicole Lemus, have never learned how to play the violin. Madrigal said one of the most awesome moments teaching those children is when they make sounds with instruments for the first time.

“They look at me, telling me through their eyes, ‘This is the most wonderful thing in the world.’ This is the soul of my heart,” Madrigal said.

Although everyone can join the World Youth Orchestra regardless of race, Benson said most of the children are from Latinx communities since many of the events that the Orquesta Northwest offers are connected to Latino culture, including “Dia de Muertos” concert, a “Los Posadas” concert, and a celebration of “El Grito” in September.

Ashley Quiroz, 15, and Axel Quiroz, 12, started playing the violin five years ago through Seattle Music Partners (SMP), which was absorbed by Seattle JazzED in 2021. Their parents are from Oaxaca, Mexico, and moved to the U.S. in 1997. 

After the SMP program, their father, Reynaldo Quiroz, paid $100 per hour for his kids’ private violin lessons until he learned about Orquesta Northwest from Facebook in the winter of 2021.  Ashley Quiroz and Axel Quiroz take lessons from Teo Benson every Saturday at Casa Latina Seattle. The advanced class has about 10 people aged 11 to 15.

“Teo taught me a lot of things that I never learned from other teachers,” Ashely Quiroz said. Ashely Quiroz and Axel Quiroz also said they enjoy and appreciate the one-on-one free private lessons Benson provides before the class.

Benson said he is always inspired by students in the World Youth who make the best out of the resources and are willing to learn more.

“What I really get excited about teaching is when I find a student who really loves playing violin,” Benson said. “They choose to come because they love it and are self-motivated.”

Brittney Ramirez, one of the first students of the World Youth Orchestra, said she learned to appreciate having a community where she felt comfortable playing the violin.

“The World Youth Orchestra made me see that we can make spaces for other Latinx people where they can experience things they may not be used to or have never been exposed to,” Ramirez said. 

She is now a junior at Seattle University, double majoring in sociology and Spanish. She said her seven years of experience with the World Youth Orchestra helped her when she applied to colleges. 

“The program helped me be more detail-oriented and organized, so that helped me succeed in my academics,” Ramirez said. 

After gaining admission to Seattle University, she launched a pilot program for high school students within the World Youth Orchestra. In this program, she assisted those interested in applying for universities and college scholarships. 

“I wanted to do that because a lot of us would be first-generation college students and lack knowledge of the application processes,” Ramirez said. “The program just helped me reinforce the idea of helping the Latinx community.” 

According to Benson, Orquesta Northwest raised more than $20,000 through the inaugural fundraising event at Town Hall Seattle on April 27. He said it was the biggest fundraising event they have ever organized. The donations will be allocated for purchasing new instruments for the World Youth Orchestra, weekly classes, and upcoming events.

Currently, each program is practiced in different places, often renting and borrowing spaces. Madrigal hopes to eventually have its own dedicated space where everyone from all the programs can come together and strengthen the community as one organization.

“With more grants, we can make it happen and have more students,” Madrigal said.

Cover Photo: Some of the most advanced World Youth Orchestra members, including Ashely Quiroz and Axel Quiroz, perform with Teo Benson and principal violist Ilya Shpigelman from Ballard Civic Orchestra under the baton of Paula Madrigal at the inaugural fundraising event in Town Hall Seattle on April 27, 2024. Around 60 young people practice weekly at Casa Latina Seattle. (Photo by Mao Hashio)

Mao Hashio

Mao Hashio is a storyteller with a passion for crafting compelling content that resonates with audiences. A recent graduate of the University of Washington, she learned storytelling, photography, audio, and video editing skills through visual journalism classes. She also acquired reporting, fact-checking and interviewing skills through other core journalism classes.

Publisher’s Notes: Washington Latino News and a class in the Journalism and Public Interest Communication program at the University of Washington are partners in best serving the Hispanic and Latino communities.