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El Sombrero Magico


Little noticed in the bustling arts scene in the Washington area is a chorus of Arlington Spanish-speaking children who sing and cavort on stage to near-professional standards.


Simply called The Spanish Chorus, several dozen school children performed the musical “El Sombrero Magico” to an enthralled audience of kids and their parents at the Arlington Woman’s Club on May 6.


In this “chorus,” you won’t see children standing stiffly and singing “God Bless America.” Instead, they are romping as donkeys, turtles, witches and wolves in bright costumes, shouting and singing songs in Spanish with a score mixed with Spanish and English.

The chorus is the brainchild of Cora Lee Khambatta, who taught music in Arlington schools from 1967 until her retirement in 2002. For more than 20 years, she has recruited Spanish-speaking kids for practices now held from 6 to 8 p.m. on Tuesday nights at Randolph School throughout the school year. “For the most part, if the parents are really motivated and the kids are, they will find a way to get there. Some walk and occasionally I drive a few,” she says.


Besides Arlington, the group has performed at the National Theater and at an educators’ conference in Pittsburgh.  “I am sure there is nothing exactly like this in other cities,” says Khambatta. “ It combines my peculiar interest in theater and music and working with little kids.”


As a music teacher at Claremont school from 1994-1997, she noted that many of her students could not speak English. So she took Spanish courses and learned a number of children’s songs in Spanish from her Venezuelan mentor. While she was teaching, Spanish-speaking children at many Arlington schools were given a brochure inviting them to the program. The school system no longer participates, but Khambatta has built a network of parents and students who have spread the word, particularly at Barcroft and Key schools.


“El Sombrero Magico,” which she helped write, has been performed three times. “Sometimes I adapt the story and the parts to the individual children I have available,” she says. In other years, when she has had good dancers, she will put on a more dance-oriented program.

With virtually no budget, she gets help primarily from parents, volunteers and older students to build sets and bring in props. One parent, Patricia Rios, made many of the costumes. Many non-Spanish speaking participants like the idea of cultural sharing. Miriam Miller, who helped found the Children’s Chorus, arranged the stage venue because of her membership in the club. Some of the children appeared later in Miller’s Opera Nova productions.


“Cora Lee should be carried around on somebody’s shoulder and be praised as a community treasure,” said Miller.  “She has brought marginalized immigrant families and their most prized possession, their children, into the mainstream, and helped many of them go on to more advanced musical studies.”


In the last show, Khambatta was troubled that she had no professional stage manager. Parents alone could not figure out when to get their children on stage. Yet somehow, “the kids did a fabulous job. They knew their lines, knew the right expressions and they knew when to go on,” she said. 


By: Michael Doan

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