Using music to empower women: Niñas Arriba program raises money for girls in El Salvador to complete a college education

Trisha Dasgupta, Senior Life&Arts Reporter

Gina Chavez started releasing music in 2007, making waves as an internationally-acclaimed Latinx pop artist. Resonating with audiences around Austin and the world for the past 16 years, her most recent album La Que Manda earned her a nomination at the Latin Grammys. 

However, for Chavez, music is more than just awards and acclaim — it’s also how she gives back to those who need it. In 2010, the UT alumna, alongside her wife Jodi Granado, founded the Niñas Arriba program, a scholarship fund that uses money from benefit concerts to help young women in El Salvador go to college.  

“I first became aware of the situation in El Salvador when I saw Donna DeCesare’s presentation when I was a student at UT,” Chavez said. “She spent years as a photojournalist documenting El Salvador during the Civil War. I was really moved by her work, and from that moment, I had this affinity for El Salvador.”

After gaining insight into poverty-stricken areas in El Salvador, Chavez and Granado went to live in Soyapango, helping teach young girls at a low-cost Catholic school in the area. Over eight months, the couple realized they wanted more for the students, eventually launching Niñas Arriba in 2010. 

“The initial goal was really to make sure that the four seniors at the school could go to college,” Chavez said. “We lived with them. They were like our sisters. We just really wanted to try and help, and we ended up being able to help three of them.”

Slowly, the program grew, and Chavez began raising money and awareness about the situation via concerts in Austin. David Holiday, founder of Stone Room Concerts and the fiscal sponsor for Niñas Arriba, helps plan these benefit concerts.

“People are attracted to musicians, great musicians, who also believe in something, and that’s what inspires people to give to this,” Holiday said. “Gina can make that bridge with her music to promote the importance of young women getting a college education.”

Students in the program receive various types of monetary support — including housing, supplies and other expenses. For Leidy Gonzalez, a law student at UCA El Salvador and current recipient of the fund, Niñas Arriba provides not just financial help but a support system as well.

“At home, only my stepfather works,” Gonzalez said. “My sister is studying too, so it was not possible to pay for my college education. Since 2020, Niñas Arriba has been paying for my college and everything I need, plus the moral support and care they have given me.”

Chavez said helping educate young girls in low-income areas extends much further than a degree, as she sees alumni from the program go on to start their own families.

“(One of our students) just looked at us and she said, ‘My daughter is going to school. My daughter is going to learn how to speak English. My daughter is going to have an opportunity like y’all have given me,’ and I get chills thinking about that,” Chavez said. 

Echoing Chavez’s sentiments, Gonzalez emphasizes the importance of empowering young women to be leaders in their own countries. 

“Girls can empower other girls to believe in themselves to get a higher education and make changes in their lives, family and environment,” Gonzalez said. “A college degree helps me to be a professional that can make changes not only in my personal life but also in our society, (which) needs people who are committed to being a part of the future of El Salvador. Girls need to be part of the professionals that can change our society.”