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Meet the Mexican, female conductor bringing classical music to Latinos in the Pacific Northwest

A woman wearing red glasses, a matching shirt with a black jacket smiles as she holds a microphone.
Nick Klein
Town Hall Seattle
Conductor Paula Madrigal leads the Seattle nonprofit Orquesta Northwest, which puts on classical music programs featuring Latino arts and culture.

Classical music. It’s not usually associated with Latinos. The Seattle nonprofit Orquesta Northwest — made up of both the Ballard Civic Orchestra and the World Youth Orchestra — is changing that.

Mexican, female conductor Paula Madrigal is leading the organization.

I met up with Madrigal at a community center in Seattle’s Ballard neighborhood. The room is filled with musicians of all ages, high school students, retired folks. Some are Latino, others aren’t.

"I feel like more so than any other conductor I've worked with, she gets you to feel the music," said Rose Gear, a musician in the Ballard Civic Orchestra.

Madrigal is walking her students through their upcoming performance at Town Hall, commemorating "EL Grito." El Grito refers to El Grito de Dolores, where a Mexican priest in 1810 inspired an uprising against the Spaniards after centuries of colonial rule. Mexicans today shout ¡Viva Mexico! as a way to remember that war of independence.

Madrigal met some of the musicians in the orchestra through the nonprofit Casa Latina, where she offers free instrument classes to underserved kids.

Others in the orchestra are professional musicians who are there to support younger players.

The magic behind the orchestra, Madrigal said, is the sense of community it builds.

Madrigal is from Guadalajara. She always liked to sing and play music, but she never imagined she would do it professionally.

One of her inspirations was Alondra de la Parra, a world-renowned conductor who once served as the artistic director of Jalisco Philharmonic Orchestra in Guadalajara.

"I remember when I was 13, 14 that I already wanted to be a conductor, that I thought 'how am I going to be a conductor if I don't look anything like the conductors?' The conductors are supposed to be German and very old and with white hair, and I'm Mexican," de la Parra said in a recent documentary about her life and career.

Madrigal said de la Parra has received plenty of pushback for her role but likely opened doors for other women.

A female conductor stands on a small platform surrounded by an orchestra with a Mexican flag displayed on a screen behind them.
Nick Klein
Town Hall Seattle
Paula Madrigal conducts the Ballard Civic Orchestra during the El Grito ceremony at Town Hall Seattle on Sunday, Sept. 17, 2023.

The orchestra Madrigal conducts reached a milestone with the El Grito performance in September. Hundreds of people packed into the auditorium. Madrigal said seeing so many Brown people in the crowd filled her with joy.

Among Madrigal’s favorite songs at the performance is “El Feo” — about a man who says he’s ugly but knows how to love. Madrigal invited Oaxacan performer Maria Reyna to sing it at Town Hall. She sang parts of the song in the Indigenous languages of Zapoteco and Mixe.

But, Madrigal said, no matter the language, live music is universal because it enlivens all the senses.

Madrigal’s next performance at Town Hall with the Ballard Civic Orchestra will be a celebration of Las Posadas, or the Christmas story, in December.

Lilly Ana Fowler covers social justice issues investigating inequality with an emphasis on labor and immigration. Story tips can be sent to