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Abigail Rodela, an accomplished pianist at (almost) 15, is the music director at her Ford City church -- and teaches piano and music-reading to the children of some of Taft's Oaxacan immigrant farmworkers.

In the spring, they pick oranges and tangerines. In August, grapes. Then, come October, a choice: vegetables in and around Arvin or strawberries over in Santa Maria. The hours can be long, the work backbreaking.

And for their labor, the Oaxacan immigrants of Taft, today about 450 strong, typically earn somewhere between $10,000 and $15,000 a year. That means their children see few of the luxuries middle-class families elsewhere might take for granted.

How fortunate they are, then, to know Abigail Rodela, who draws on her gift, music, to lift them up, straighten them out and show them what quiet determination looks like. 

Abigail, slight and soft-spoken, gives piano lessons to the children of six Oaxacan farmworker families from the rural village of San Pablo de Tijaltepec. She charges $5 a hour. "If they pay me, they pay me," Abigail says, "and if they don't, it's fine."

She has been giving lessons for nearly two years now, since she was 13. Yes, Abigail is 14. Almost 15, she is quick to point out. 

"It's because of what my parents did for me," she says. "We were living in L.A. and struggling financially, but they still managed to send me to piano class. It motivated me to do this. Piano brings me joy, and I wanted to share that."

So, several days a week, at her family's Seventh-day Adventist Church in Ford City, Abigail gives one-on-one lessons to seven Oaxacan children who range in age from 6 to 16. 

Obed González, her 16-year-old student, was at the church with Abigail last week, studying for an upcoming performance.

"I want to learn to play the piano because I already play the guitar and violin and this will help me fulfill my goal of studying music later," González says, calling upon Abigail to translate from Spanish. "She is a very good teacher."

None of the parishioners question Abigail about using the church's piano: She is the director of music.

The church's 14-year-old director of music.

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ABIGAIL'S MOTHER, SONIA RODELA, was born in El Salvador and came to the United States at 8. Her father, Daniel Rodela, the son of immigrants from Chihuahua, Mexico, was born and raised in Torrance and Long Beach. They met at church in Carson, where Danny sometimes sang.

They lived in Buena Park when they were first married. Danny had a good job and Sonia was primarily a stay-at-home mom. Then the 2007-08 recession came along and knocked them down. They lost their home. Like so many others, Danny says, "we had a bad loan."

They moved in with a relative of Sonia's and for a time didn't even have a car.

"It was a very, very difficult time in our lives," Danny says.

But, through it all, one comfort, one duty, remained: music. Sonia and Abigail simply took the bus to the girl's piano lessons.

"We kind of gave up on many things, like having a better car or a bigger place to live," Sonia says. "We had to choose either the girls' education and their passion for music or those other (material) things. We chose their passion."

Danny looked long and hard for steady work but the family didn't make much headway. Finally, in 2011, running out of options, they accepted a relative's suggestion, took a risk and moved near the west Kern oil town of Taft.

"It was 110 degrees that day," Danny says. "We stayed anyway."

It would be for only two or three years, they decided. Just until they got their bearings.

But Taft College beckoned. Supporting his family with credit cards and forced frugality, Danny earned his Associates degree, then went to Cal State Bakersfield for his BA, majoring in political science and philosophy.

Along the way they were joined by Sophia, now 11, Amelia, 8, and Camila, 3.

All but the youngest travel to Bakersfield regularly for piano lessons with Donna Calanchini. The teacher sees something special in Abigail.

"Being director of music at her church has helped her develop a lot of self-confidence and poise," Calanchini says. "Of course, I think Abigail is full of those things anyway.

"She's definitely going to be a musician," the teacher says. "And she may be teaching. But she's going to be in a leadership position somewhere."

Sonia homeschools all of her girls at their house in Valley Acres, an unincorporated burg north of Taft. They work with Inspire Charter School, a network that provides educational resources and support to homeschooling families.

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AND NOW ABIGAIL HAS LATCHED ONTO Taft's Mixteco-speaking Oaxacan community, which is already almost 20 percent of the size of the municipality in southern Mexico from whence they came. San Pablo de Tijaltepec, including its surrounding villages, has only about 2,500 people.

Fausto Sanchez, who works in the Arvin office of California Rural Legal Assistance, and has been to San Pablo de Tijaltepec, can only guess as to why so many have settled in and around Taft.

"They couldn't afford to rent in Bakersfield, so they came to Taft," where it was more affordable, he says. "Others just followed."

How important has Taft become to Central California's immigrant Oaxacans? The population swells, relatively speaking, on Jan. 25, when former Tijaltepec villagers from throughout Kern and adjacent coastal counties come to Taft for the annual celebration of San Pablo — Saint Paul, their patron saint.

ABIGAIL AND HER SISTER SOPHIA have both been selected to perform at the State Music Teachers’ Association convention in Santa Clara at the end of June. Calanchini helped make it happen, and not just by developing their piano skills.

Seventh-day Adventist students had not been able to participate because the judging is always held on a Saturday, which Adventists observe as their Sabbath. But "I went to bat for my students," the teacher notes, "and mentioned the words ‘religious discrimination.’"

And suddenly the door opened. Four of the Kern Branch students who would not have been able to participate for religious reasons were permitted to submit videotaped performances and take the written theory and ear training tests on another day.

Today, Danny and Sonia Rodela have many people and institutions, known and unknown to them, to thank: 

Calanchini, for believing in their girls.

Taft College and Cal State Bakersfield, for believing in Danny, who now works in CSUB's University Advancement office. (CSUB's Kegley Institute of Ethics honorably mentioned Abigail at its 2019 Wendy Wayne Awards dinner this month.)

The early 20th century English writer J.R.R. Tolkien, whose words have inspired Abigail to want to study British literature in college — Oxford, if at all possible.

The Canadian composer Howard Shore, who orchestrated, conducted and produced the score for Peter Jackson's film trilogy based on Tolkien's "The Lord of Rings" books — soaring soundtracks that reinvigorated Abigail's interest in piano just as it seemed to flag.

And each other, for remembering what matters.

"We can recuperate from the debt," Danny says, "but you can never recuperate from not being great parents."

Contact The Californian's Robert Price at 661-395-7399, rprice@bakersfield.com or on Twitter: @stubblebuzz. The views expressed here are his own.

(4) comments

Citizen

Abigail’s is so inspiring! Her compassion and skills shows how one person can make a huge impact within a family and the larger community. Her parents’ devotion to their family and education of their children just warmes the cockles of my heart. Hat’s off to her piano teacher as well. I’m rooting for you Abigail! I know your life is going to continue to be amazing.

dtorres

Thank you so much Citizen! I will share your words with Abby.

REMUDA

Bravo, Abigail . . . !
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Music is good, especially with piano as a beginning. Hopefully all are welcome to your skills on the keyboard as well as the organizing influence of learning the scales . . . and each with their own 'CARL FISCHER SPIRAL MUSIC WRITING BOOK NO. 106 -- 64 PAGES' . . .
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First to learn--"Hands resting on the table--round--fingers curved and on tips--a little 'window' between each finger . . ."

dtorres

Thanks Remunda! I will share your feedback with Abby. [beam]

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