Breaking into a field that is predominately dominated by men can be a pretty daunting task. However, hard work and dedication can be the best weapon against any form of prejudice encountered. xQsí Magazine was recently able to chat with a Latina from the LGBT community that personifies that very definition.
Maestra Jessica Bejarano is an orchestral conductor residing in the beautiful city of San Francisco, California. Ms. Bejarano received her Bachelor of Music in Music Education from the University of Wyoming, and her Master of Arts in Conducting from the University of California Davis. She can be found throughout the Bay Area working as the Music Director of VOICES Lesbian Choral Ensemble in Oakland, Music Director and Conductor of West County Winds in El Cerrito, Assistant Conductor and Music Educator of Peninsula Symphony in Palo Alto, Guest and Cover Conductor of the Bay Area RAINBOW Symphony, and the Artist-in-Residence with LEAP Imagination and Learning in San Francisco.
XQSI: Growing up Latina and LGBT, what kind of obstacles did you face?
JB: It definitely was one of the biggest obstacles that I had faced. I was “outted” to my family and it wasn’t an easy notion for them to take. At that time my family was very Catholic and conservative in their way of thinking. They did not understand my lifestyle and some of them ended up rejecting me. It was extremely painful so when this happened I began to rebel and became very mischievous. My family had always preached togetherness and love, so when I began experiencing this rejection it was very difficult and painful for me to handle. I didn’t care much about anything at that point and decided to get into as much trouble as I possibly could. I don’t want to get into further details of some of the things I did. (Laughs)
XQSI: You were headed down the wrong path, but then you discovered a passion for music that would ultimately change your life. Can you describe that to us?
JB: I always had a connection to music. Even when I was a kid, music had always been a positive aspect in my life. I began playing the trumpet in high school and eventually was presented with the opportunity to become the drum major of the band. I embraced the chance to teach them, and lead them. This was an incredible opportunity for me so when I finished high school I continued with this leadership role in college. The more I immersed myself in music, the more I craved it. Everyday my passion for music continues to grow.
XQSI: It sounds as though music was your saving grace. It pulled you out from certain obstacles and problems you were facing at the time, is that correct?
JB: Oh yes, it certainly did! The more I involved myself in music the less time I devoted to hanging out with friends that were ditching classes, or doing extracurricular activities (laughs). But I also had an amazing instructor at Bell Gardens High School in L.A. who threatened to pull music away from me if I continued to get into trouble. That was not a chance I was willing to take. Music was my saving grace, and it definitely saved my life.
XQSI: You received your B.A. in Music Education from the University of Wyoming. This is also the same university that Matthew Shepard attended when he was beat up and left to die solely for the fact he was Gay. When you attended the university, did you ever encounter any homophobia or racism because of your Mexican-American roots?
JB: I remember my first day of school. Here I was, a Latina from Los Angeles, with about 15 piercings on my face and ears, and tattoos on both arms (laughs) so needless to say everywhere I went people would just stare at me. I didn’t let the stares or odd looks get to me. I immediately began taking on leadership roles. I became the conductor of the pep band and the drum major of the 300-piece marching band. I noticed the more leadership roles I took on, the more respect I had begun to receive. UW has a lot of pride in their music program, so they appreciated me for the position I held. One time after a halftime performance I had conducted, two young Native American girls came up to me and shook my hand and said, “Jessica, thank you for doing what you do. You make our community proud.” These students had embraced the fact I was a minority and held that position. From that moment on it became very important to me that my role as a music educator took on the added duty of advocating for minority women, minority Latinas, and the LGBT community, and I am very proud of that.
XQSI: When did you finally decide to focus on a career in orchestral conducting?
JB: After I graduated from UW, I attended the University of California, Davis and that is actually where I began pursuing a career in orchestral conducting. Unfortunately, I faced some nay-sayers there. A few people in the music department looked down upon the fact I was a Latina lesbian trying to pursue this career. At one point an instructor told me, “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.” 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.
XQSI: You have traveled the globe and trained with various world-renowned orchestral conductors. You have been to orchestral conducting academies from Italy and Russia, to Romania, and Bulgaria. Can you share a little about those experiences?
JB: They were all uniquely wonderful experiences in their own right. It was definitely a blessing to be able to spend time in these various locales and learn from some of the world’s best conductors who brought various musical perspectives into my life and that has been absolutely beneficial. However, when I was in Russia we were warned homosexuality was not accepted there. And just recently while in Bulgaria at a conducting academy, somebody started making gay jokes and anti-gay comments, even going as far as saying “gays do not exist in this country.” Hearing that comment I was shocked beyond belief. At that point I realized I had to be very careful and not reveal that part of myself. For the first time since my early teenage years, I felt fear. I focused my time and energy in learning and conducting in the academy which was my primary objective anyway. It was definitely interesting, to say the least.
XQSI: Currently, xQsí Magazine readers can locate you working all throughout the Bay Area. Can you describe any recent memorable experience you may have conducting one of your many performances with either orchestra or choir?
JB: My first year as Assistant Conductor of the Peninsula Symphony, I put together a family-oriented program where I allowed a young boy to take the podium and, with my assistance, conduct the orchestra. It was truly a remarkable experience and his mother even wrote an emotional blog in regards to it.
Another memorable event I took part in was at Golden Gate Park, when my VOICES Lesbian Choral Ensemble and the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus participated in a remembrance ceremony for those who have died because of AIDS. I had a couple friends whom passed away because of this epidemic and I know people who are living with HIV so needless to say it was an experience very dear to my heart and something I will never forget.
XQSI: As you know, the national media is finally catching on to the fact of just how rampant youth suicides are in the LGBT community. With the possibility a youth who may be considering such drastic measures may be reading this Q&A, is there something you would like to share with them?
JB: Actually, I would like to share something with their families. I would like to tell the families of these LGBT youth to embrace their children, and show them unbiased support, love and acceptance. If LGBT youth face such horrible conditions at school because of the result of bullying, and there is a lack of support at home, then the end result can only be devastating. Giving our youth unconditional love and support at home can give them the ability to brush off any harmful words directed at them, and can give them the confidence that they are not alone. Family is very important, no doubt about it.
XQSI: Earlier, you mentioned during your teenage years how difficult it was for your family to accept your sexuality. Has your relationship with your family improved?
JB: Yes it has, tremendously! My family is the most important thing to me. My family is my rock. I love my family and they love me. I’m actually glad I was the one who came out and went through what I did because I feel that helped pave the way for other family members to come out. I feel it was a bit easier for my family to accept the fact other cousins are gay as well (giggles). My mother has always been a role model for us growing up because of all the obstacles she has faced. She was a single mother raising 3 kids, working 5-6 days a week, and she always made sure there was food on the table. It took many years for my relationship with my family to improve but now I couldn’t have asked for a better relationship with them. I am accepted, I have their support, and most importantly I have their love (voice begins to crack)… and I couldn’t have asked for anything more.
Maestra Jessica Bejarano can be found on Facebook, and her own personal website listed here: