Mexican-American Conductor Jessica Bejarano Is Showing The Power Of Representation In Classical Music
When you think of a conductor for a symphony orchestra, the image of a male suited up with tails and wielding a baton is usually what comes to mind. Mexican-American conductor Jessica Bejarano, who sports multiple tattoos on her arms, is working to change that image to be more inclusive for the multiple communities she is a part of.
Growing up in Bell Gardens in southeast Los Angeles County, Bejarano lived with her single mother and two other siblings. She grew up hearing the sounds of loud gang members and gunshots before she ever heard the notes of classical music.
Jessica Bejarano is taking up space as a Latina woman in the orchestral conductor community.
The 38-year-old told PBS she credits classical music with saving her life.
“Unfortunately kids get arrested, kids are murdered, kids are imprisoned, kids get pregnant. I defied all those odds, I didn’t become any of those statistics because music was always there to keep me on a straight path,” she told PBS’ Chasing the Dream.
Bejarano started playing the trumpet in elementary school through college. However, it wasn’t until she was in an orchestral class at Pasadena City College that she became interested in classical music.
She can even pinpoint the specific piece of music that made her fall in love with classical music.
She told KCRW one rehearsal in college sparked an intense love for classical music when she heard the orchestra play Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Dona Nobis Pacem and Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5.
“What is this music, and why is this the first time I’m ever listening to it? It was like an instant spark in my being, in my energy, in my body. I will never forget that evening,” she told KCRW’s Press Play. “I knew at that point, I needed to know more about classical music, and I needed to immerse myself as much as possible.”
She knew that he needed to chase the education that would help her open doors.
From that moment, Bejarano went full force into attaining the education she needed to become a conductor. She went to the University of Wyoming to attain her Bachelor of Music in Music Education and she pursued a Master of Arts in Conducting from the University of California, Davis.
However, her background was questioned by music instructors in her program. It was as if they questioned why someone who looked like her wanted to or thought they could be a conductor.
In an interview with XQsi magazine in 2010, Bejarano shared the shocking statement an instructor made to her.
After sharing her dream to be a conductor, she said the instructor told her, “Are you serious, you really want to become an orchestral conductor? Why don’t you try going down to Mexico, you might have better luck down there,” Bejarano told the magazine. She continued, “It was definitely a hard pill to swallow but the more people told me I couldn’t do it, the more I wanted it. I used that negativity as fuel to push me to where I want to go.”
She did use that negativity to push through and apply to programs for her Ph.D. in conducting and job opportunities to become an assistant conductor.
That was when an opportunity popped up in the city she had always wanted to live in—San Francisco.
Bejarano was offered the job of an assistant conductor for $2,000 a year. After discussing the matter with mentors and friends, she decided to take the job despite the dismal pay and juggled multiple jobs to make ends meet.
“This is my life. This is my career, my passion. No one’s going to take away my right to have the life that I want,” Bejarano told Natalie Morales from ‘The Today Show.’
Bejarano is definitely living the music life she wants.
Aside from being the current music director and conductor for the San Francisco Civic Symphony, she has also been invited to be a guest conductor at concert halls across the country.
She also continues to inspire the LGBTQ+ community in the arts. Although Bejarano told XQsi she had a tough coming out experience of her own, she wants to be a safe haven for others to be included in all areas of music. She has practiced that by being the music Director of VOICES Lesbian Choral Ensemble in Oakland and a guest conductor for the Bay Area RAINBOW Symphony, whose mission is to promote and support LGBTQ+ musicians and composers.
What’s up next for this conductor?
Bejarano wants to crack the glass ceiling of maestros being only men for the largest symphonies in the country. As of now, there is only one female maestra for the top 20 largest symphonies in the U.S.
By continuing to compose a symphony of inclusivity, resilience, and representation in music, we believe she can get there.