It takes a village: Projects for Peace winner Carlos Cortez ’24 and the people of Zináparo bring music and soccer to their youth

By Lou Chen

Carlos Cortez ’24 and his soccer team. Photo by: Lou Chen.

Carlos Cortez ’24 straddles two worlds.

His family is from Zináparo, a small rural village in Michoácan, Mexico, where few people have ever heard of Princeton University. 

He’s a senior at Princeton University, where few people have ever heard of Zináparo.

But Carlos had an idea to bring these two worlds together. Last year, with the funding he won as Princeton’s 2023 Projects for Peace award recipient, he started a music and soccer summer camp for Zináparo youth.

Now everyone in Zináparo knows Princeton. And Princeton is just getting to know Zináparo.

Carlos in Zináparo’s town square. Photo by: Lou Chen.

An idea

Even though Carlos was born and raised in Antioch, California, he considers his real hometown to be Zináparo, where most of his extended family still lives. Twice every year, he travels to Zináparo to enjoy the balmy summers and festive winters, hiking in the nearby mountains and participating in the annual peregrinación (religious pilgrimage).

Accepted into Princeton as a Questbridge scholar, Carlos chose to major in neuroscience and committed to the pre-med track, supplementing his coursework with research and tutoring jobs. Despite his busy schedule, he felt restless. His thoughts constantly returned to Zináparo. “My dream was to become a doctor and open a pediatric clinic in Zináparo,” he says. “But I realized that it would be many years before I could accomplish this. I didn’t want to wait that long. I wanted a chance to do something now.”

That chance soon arrived. During his junior year, he heard about the Pace Center for Civic Engagement’s Projects for Peace initiative, which provides Princeton undergraduates with a $10,000 award to implement a service project anywhere in the world. With his family’s encouragement, he proposed a music and soccer summer camp for children in Zináparo. “Growing up in California, music and soccer were very important for me in making community,” he says. “I wanted the kids in Zináparo to have the same experience.” In the spring of 2023, he won the award.

Carlos and his music students. Photo by: Adrián Pimentel.

A village

As any entrepreneur will tell you, the road from idea to execution is a winding one. “Right before arriving in Zináparo, I was feeling that the process would be easy,” Carlos says. “But when I landed in Zináparo, I started to realize that it was going to be a long journey with a lot of challenges.”

The first challenge was recruiting children for the camp, which Carlos had titled, “Musical Notes: A Composition for Peace.” Even though Carlos was a frequent visitor to Zináparo, he remained an unfamiliar face to many people. It didn’t matter that Princeton was supporting the camp; none of the children knew what Princeton even was. 

He began by visiting the local high school where his aunt Noemí taught history and ethics, going from classroom to classroom and telling students about his new program. He later found out that one of the students called up Noemí, a widely respected community leader in Zináparo, and told her that someone from Princeton University wanted to start a summer camp. “Do you know about this?” the student asked. “Can we trust him?” 

“Of course you can,” Noemí replied. “He’s my nephew!”

Carlos and a new bass from Paracho. Photo by: Adrián Pimentel.

Another challenge was procuring instruments. Almost 40 kids wanted to learn guitar, violin, or bass—but none of them had their own instrument. One hot summer day, Carlos, his younger sister Natalia, his mother Eréndira, his uncle Adrián, and his grandfather Guillermo piled into the family van and drove two hours to Paracho, a small town in Michoácan that specializes in making instruments. (Paracho inspired the setting of the Oscar-winning animated film Coco.)

Once in Paracho, they purchased several instruments from a local luthier. Somehow, they crammed one bass, five guitars, and seven violins into a van that already contained five people. “I was pressed up against the side of the van,” says Carlos. “It was definitely an experience.” They made several return trips to Paracho for more instruments, and on one occasion, the aforementioned luthier drove a second bass all the way to Zináparo by himself. 

Carlos was surprised by how enthusiastically the Zináparo community rallied around the camp. Countless people pitched in: the neighbor who let them use his house for rehearsals; the business owner who let them use his shop for a private recital; and Carlos’ 10-year-old student Hector and Hector’s mother Luz, who cleaned up after every rehearsal. “Without everyone’s help, this project would not have been possible,” says Carlos. 

Violin class. Photo by: Adrián Pimentel.

The camp exceeded even Carlos’ wildest expectations. Every Monday through Thursday for two and a half months, almost 100 children aged four to 17 participated in one or more classes: soccer, choir, guitar, and violin/bass. Carlos coached the soccer team and hired teachers for the other subjects. “I wanted teachers who were passionate about working with kids,” says Carlos. “I didn’t want them to treat this as just another way to make money.”

On the last day of camp, his soccer team surprised him with a loud round of applause. One student cried out, “Carlos for president!” Carlos promised to buy them jerseys out of his own money if they continued to practice soccer.

Carlos and his soccer team. Photo by: Adrián Pimentel.

Continue they did. Even though Carlos had to return to Princeton for his senior year, he was determined to keep the camp going. He found two people to coach the soccer team on a volunteer basis; they had recently moved to Zináparo and had long dreamed of coaching their own team. He used his leftover Projects for Peace funding to pay for weekly choral and instrumental lessons for his students until December, and let them keep their instruments. Noemí took his place as the point person for the program. 

For Carlos, the experience was a blessing. “I just wanted to change the future of even one of the kids,” he says. “I’m seeing that difference already.”

Carlos and his family. Photo by: Lou Chen.

A debut

On January 7, Carlos woke up with butterflies in his stomach. Today was the debut of Musical Notes: A Composition for Peace. Since the summer, the choir and orchestra (consisting of guitar, violin, and bass) had been rehearsing weekly for a big concert in the Zináparo town square. The entire community had been invited, and Carlos’ extended family in California had flown out to watch. 

First, Carlos stopped by the soccer field to observe a match between his team and a team from a neighboring town. He had kept his promise: His team was wearing brand-new orange and black jerseys. Natalia had designed the jerseys, including the iconic image of a Princeton tiger glaring through claw marks.

Carlos’ soccer team wears their new Princeton-inspired jerseys. Photo by: Lou Chen.

“In one of our first games, we played against a team from a much wealthier town,” says Carlos. “I could tell how discouraged my students were to see how much nicer [the opposing team’s] field was. I got them jerseys because I wanted them to feel proud to be on this team. I wanted them to feel like they were a part of something bigger…like they had the support of Princeton University.” The new jerseys seemed to do the trick: After putting them on, his team won the next game. 

After the match, Carlos and his parents walked to the town square to set up for the performance. The owner of the local funeral home, whose daughter was in the choir, had donated 150 chairs for the audience—and had even purchased new ones so that there would be enough. 

The audience seated in the town square. Photo by: Lou Chen.

Carlos was worried that not enough people were going to show up to fill the seats. But as people started entering the town square, he realized that he had the opposite problem: He didn’t have enough seats. His family raced to the rehearsal space, grabbed as many chairs as they could, carried them back, and set them up with only minutes to spare. The new chairs were quickly occupied and latecomers had to stand. At least 350 people were in the audience. 

As Natalia helped tune the guitars, she noticed a student looking forlorn. She asked him what was wrong, and he quietly asked if this was the last day of the program. “Of course not,” Natalia assured him. He smiled.

The choir performs “Noche de paz.” Photo by: Lou Chen.

The choir opened the concert with six Christmas carols. During “Noche de paz” (Silent Night), they cradled candles in their hands, their faces glowing as if lit from within. For their final song, “Ven a Cantar” (Sing with Us), they rolled up their sleeves, revealing bracelets made of jingle bells. As they clapped their hands, the ringing of bells filled the crisp winter air.

The orchestra was up next, performing two songs that featured a 15-year-old choral student named Andrea. Her voice, initially hesitant and wavering, gradually grew in power. The guitarists kept the orchestra together with their steady strumming, and the violinists trained their eyes on the conductor, determined not to miss their tremolo entrance. In the very back, a student plucked away at the bass Carlos had brought back from Paracho.

After the orchestra finished, Noemí invited Hector and Luz to the stage and thanked them for keeping the rehearsal space clean. She presented them with gifts and embraced a clearly overcome Luz. The crowd cheered.

Next to speak was Carlos’ student José, who at 17 years old was the oldest member of the program. “I want to give a special thank you to Carlos for giving me and the children of this town the opportunity to learn music,” he said. “I hope this continues…Zináparo needs these programs.”

José delivers his speech. Photo by: Lou Chen.

Carlos walked onstage to deliver the concluding remarks. “Thank you to my grandparents for giving me a love of Zináparo,” he said, choking back tears. “I know I wasn’t born here, but this is my home.”

As Carlos left the stage, he was mobbed by students, parents, complete strangers—all of whom wanted to take a picture with him. Grown men were crying and little kids were beaming. “Before this camp, the children of Zináparo didn’t have anything like this,” says Eréndira. “But now, they do.”

Carlos hopes that the camp will take place every summer, with weekly programming throughout the rest of the year. He hopes that someday his music students will be paid to perform or even to teach. (This is already happening: José has been invited by his guitar teacher to perform in a mariachi band, and Carlos wants him to teach for the camp.) He hopes to solicit donations from Zináparo residents who have immigrated to the United States, and to potentially seek funding from the Mexican government. 

These are all big dreams. It’s a lot for one Princeton student—and soon-to-be-alum—to take on alone. 

But Carlos knows he isn’t alone. “I feel honored to have so many different communities believe in the project,” he says. “It ensures the life of the project, because there are so many people invested in wanting to see the kids succeed.”

Musical Notes: A Composition for Peace. Photo by: Lou Chen.

All News