The family that plays together… The four brothers are all past or present members of the Patel Youth Symphony, and have also formed a jazz quartet. Their sister, Sandra, 14, is a musician as well.
Growing up afraid: The Quixtans’ parents, both physicians, ran a medical clinic in Guatemala, and even though they charged very little for their services, were viewed as prosperous, and their children were marked as prime targets for kidnapping. Luis remembers the day a car pulled up next to him (he was 12 at the time) and a man with a gun told him to get in. He ran away, thinking, “I’d rather them shoot me than get kidnapped,” knowing his family would likely never see him if he were captured.
Escaping to safety: Tired of living in fear, the Quixtans’ mother, Sandra, decided in 2004 that the family needed to get out of Guatemala and try to make a life in Florida. She and her husband could find only menial work at first: Burger King for her, painting houses for him. He was so disheartened that he wanted to return to Guatemala so he could work there and send money; the family insisted that he stay in Florida, telling him, “If they kill you, there is nothing we can do,” recalls Luis.
Caregivers: Sandra’s medical experience enabled her to find work as a caregiver for an elderly woman who allowed the family to live in a trailer on her property, but when the woman died, they were left homeless, living in their car. Then a chance encounter at a Catholic church food pantry in Brandon with Ishmael Ramos, a recently widowed Army vet and retired plumber, changed their lives. Though Ramos had a reputation for being gruff, the Quixtans found him to be approachable and surprisingly helpful: he invited them to stay at his home for a while in exchange for helping with utilities. The family wound up staying with Ramos for six years. “I can’t let those kids get killed,” he told Sandra Quixtan.
Guardian angel: Ramos bought the children their first musical instruments in a pawn shop. Still too afraid to spend any time outside after their experiences in Guatemala — “The only friends we had were ourselves,” says Luis — the siblings spent their free time after school practicing and listening to recordings, like the soundtrack of the first Star Wars movie. “We would listen, think, ‘That’s a French horn, that’s a trumpet — it sounded so perfect and beautiful, and we said, ‘We could do that!’” Ramos encouraged them, boosting their confidence and pushing them to do better. “He was the key to our success,” says Luis. And Ramos got something in return. “You guys think I’m helping you,” he told Sandra Quixtan. “In reality, you guys are helping me.” After his death in 2011 at the age of 84, Ramos’ sister told the Quixtans that the years he’d spent with them were the best of his life.
Class acts: Encouraged by a classmate in middle school, Francisco decided to audition for the Patel Youth Symphony, and his brothers tried out as well. They all got in, including Kevin, who was just a freshman in high school at the time. By the time Luis and his older brothers had graduated from high school, they were comfortable playing a variety of instruments: Luis, oboe, sax and clarinet; Francisco, clarinet, sax and bass; Christian, bassoon, piano and sax. Kevin, still in high school, plays French horn, drums and guitar; Sandra, in eighth grade, sings, plays drums and cello. Francisco and Christian are both currently enrolled at Florida Southern College in Lakeland, where they’re continuing their musical studies.
Jamming when they can: As the Quixtan Quartet, the brothers play jazz standards like “Body and Soul” and “Autumn Leaves,” and have performed at venues in Lakeland and Brandon. Their studies have prevented them from doing any gigs lately.
Mother knows best: “I want to thank my mom for everything,” says Luis. “She saved our lives.”