This Little Light of Thine

Let's put aside, for the moment, any questions about which came first (the chicken or the egg) and plunge into the mysterious fog surrounding the enigma of which is the stronger force: nature or nurture. Let's also narrow our focus to how the arts can have a positive impact on children.

There's no question that today's tots can be exposed to the arts at an early age. From Sesame Street to reality television-style talent shows like The Voice and So You Think You Can Dance; from opera and ballet performances televised over the Public Broadcasting System (PBS) to arts and crafts activities in daycare centers and nursery schools, children are presented with numerous forms of mental stimulation that spring from the arts. Unfortunately, not every child has such opportunities.

  • While some families aggressively push their children to participate in dance classes and music lessons, others can barely afford food.
  • While some parents can afford tickets to see Cirque du Soleil, others need to worry about paying their phone and heating bills.
  • Some children are raised by single parents whose level of exhaustion prevents them from wondering if their child has a special talent.
  • Some parents can't afford to even think about providing their child with "the finer things in life."

Where does that leave children who are left alone with lots of time on their hands? Or latchkey kids who faithfully do their homework but have no one around to notice what sparks their curiosity? Today, anyone with a smartphone can access a wealth of video on YouTube. But if parents have no idea that a child who likes to be active might respond to something spark of creativity embedded in the following videos, how will they know if that child has any interest in dance?

While hyperactive children sometimes enjoy dancing as a means of releasing energy, as their bodies and minds mature, some may be pleasantly surprised to learn about ways in which dance can be applied to sports and science. Although arts programs in grades K-12 are constantly threatened by inadequate funding, many teachers have found ways to encourage children to explore the arts through competitions and team-building activities.

Many years ago, a friend of mine who had gone to college in Prescott, Arizona told me what happened when students were given an opportunity to take some elective classes that were outside their course track. Some expressed an interest in taking ballet until one young man scoffed and said, "You don't need to study that stuff. All you need to do is smoke a joint. Once you're stoned, you just get up and do it."

Anyone who has studied ballet or learned how to play a musical instrument can tell you that it takes long hours of practice and lots of discipline to hone one's craft. But what about a child who has no financial resources and nary a clue about an innate talent?

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The Mill Valley Film Festival is screening a touching independent film from Cuba that touches on this subject. Written by Amilcar Sallati and directed with loving care by Jonal Cosculluela, Esteban focuses on a 10-year-old boy (Reynaldo Guanche) being raised by Miriam (Yuliet Cruz) a single mother who has trouble squeezing child support from the boy's father, Agustin (Ismael Issac).

Reynaldo Guanche and Raúl Pomares in a scene from <strong><em>Esteban</em></strong>
Reynaldo Guanche and Raúl Pomares in a scene from Esteban

At school, Esteban is shy and a bit of a loner. The only boy who seems less socially adept is Melón (Raúl Pomares), a fat kid who empties out the contents of his soda bottle every day because his mother has filled it with sugar water. As soon as Esteban returns home from school he is tasked with roaming the neighborhood and trying to sell the toiletries his mother has acquired on the black market to women who live in nearby neighborhoods.

 Reynaldo Guanche stars in <strong><em>Esteban</em></strong>
Reynaldo Guanche stars in Esteban

One afternoon, as Esteban passes a rundown house, he hears a sound like nothing he has ever heard before. It's the decrepit home of Hugo (Manuel Porto), an elderly music teacher who harbors a dark family secret. When the cantankerous Hugo first notices Esteban, he tries to shoo the boy away. But Esteban won't be deterred. After a while, he tells Hugo that he would like to take piano lessons. At first, Hugo doesn't take the boy seriously. Nor does he have time for a young boy without the necessary discipline to practice on a regular basis. Miriam is shocked when her son informs her that, instead of buying him sneakers, he wants her to pay for piano lessons.

Reynaldo Guanche takes a piano lesson in a scene from <strong><em>Esteban</em></strong>
Reynaldo Guanche takes a piano lesson in a scene from Esteban

With the help of his new friend, Melón, Esteban learns how to charge higher prices to women with more disposable income who can easily afford the toiletries he is peddling. Slowly, he starts to save up enough money to pay Hugo for lessons. It doesn't take long for Hugo to realize that the boy has a very special talent: he can listen to a piece of music and then sit down at a piano and play it by ear. Miriam, of course, has no idea what this means but relents when Hugo invites her to bring Esteban to a concert where his estranged daughter will be performing.

Although there has been bad blood between Hugo and Sofia (Mónica Alonso) for many years, the old man hopes to enter Esteban into a piano competition that could earn the boy a scholarship to attend the music school where Sofia teaches. There's just one problem. Hugo's constant coughing is a manifestation of his metastasizing lung cancer. Although he wants Esteban to perform his latest composition, Hugo's time is running out. The boy also has no idea of the music's significance to the composer and his daughter.

Miriam (Yuliet Cruz) visits the dying Hugo (Manuel Porto) in a scene from <strong><em>Esteban</em></strong>
Miriam (Yuliet Cruz) visits the dying Hugo (Manuel Porto) in a scene from Esteban

In his director's note, filmmaker Jonal Cosculluela writes:

Esteban found its way to become a reality thanks to its sensitivity and willingness to do something. In my case, the image of a director knocking on doors with a screenplay in his hand was not a publicity trick, it was real. Every person in a managerial position who supported this film and made it possible heard the story directly from the film producer and me while sitting in their offices. Even though institutions trusted the project and its team, it was impossible for them to give us the funds directly. The mechanism for that does not exist yet, or at least, there is not enough information.”
Reynaldo Guanche enters a piano competition in a scene from <strong><em>Esteban</em></strong>
Reynaldo Guanche enters a piano competition in a scene from Esteban
“I have always believed that obstacles are tests in the path we chose. The persistence of Esteban’s main character (and his determination not to abandon his dream) immediately made me relate to this boy. From that moment on, I discovered many similarities with my own life. When I started this film, I was very clear that I wanted to call attention to the parents who are so important in our lives. I wanted to remind them that they must support their children and guide them to help their dreams come true. I had no child then. But now that I have two beautiful daughters, I believe even more that we parents must never be an obstacle. We always have to be the hope and support for our boys and girls to be able to dream and, once their dreams come true, have the courage to build new ones.”
Reynaldo Guanche enters a piano competition in a scene from <strong><em>Esteban</em></strong>
Reynaldo Guanche enters a piano competition in a scene from Esteban

With music by Cuba's beloved Afro-Cuban jazz composer, Chucho Valdés, Esteban is buoyed by Reynaldo Guanche's wide-eyed performance in the title role. Yuliet Cruz and Manuel Porto give rock solid performances as the two strongest influences in the young boy's life.

This film had special meaning for me because, as a child, I was able to pick up music very easily and play it by ear. Once I started to take piano lessons from a stern teacher (composer John Corigliano's mother), I realized I had none of the drive evident in her other students (who were hell-bent on developing professional careers). Among the many reasons I stopped playing piano was that I simply didn't enjoy practicing.

It would be easy for some people to dismiss Esteban as a poverty-stricken tearjerker, but Cosculluela's film gently captures the challenge of recognizing a child with a unique talent and giving the kid an opportunity to blossom. Here's the trailer:

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