"I want to use my talent to speak for the have-nots," says band leader Alvin Suarez
For two decades, four blind men who have been friends since childhood have been performing together on stages around the world — and giving back to disadvantaged communities.
The New York-based Latin band, Los Ciegos Del Barrio, which translates to The Blind Boys From the Hood, is led by Alvin Suarez, whose passion for music began when he was just 5-years-old.
“My dad is a musician, so as a kid, he would let my twin brother and I play in his band,” Suarez tells PEOPLE. “He inspired us. We saw how fun it was.”
Suarez, 45, was born with Leber congenital amaurosis, a rare inherited retinal degenerative disease that appears at birth.
While attending a summer camp for the blind with his brother Derek (who is also blind), he met his bandmates Arnold Vargas and Jimmy Fontanez. They would get together for jam sessions and by high school, they were playing together all the time.
“We’re still kicking,” says Suarez, who sings, writes lyrics and plays percussion and guitar. “We’ve stuck with it.”
The band, who has performed all over the world, also helps out numerous organizations in and out of disabled communities.
They’ve assisted in AIDS education in the Dominican Republic, literacy programs in Cuba, raised awareness for a domestic violence hotline for the Latin community in North Carolina and have helped raise funds to assist earthquake victims in Haiti and Ecuador.
Suarez, whose day job is at Verizon, says that he and his bandmates have a responsibility to give back and never forget where they came from.
“The disabled community is a forgotten community,” he says. “When I’m on stage or on social media promoting something, that’s where my audience is listening the most. That’s when I can speak for those folks.”
Their passion for music and giving back to the community hasn’t gone unnoticed.
City Access New York, a not-for-profit organization serving developmentally disabled and visually impaired communities, announced in July that Los Ciegos Del Barrio will be honored with their first Annual Achievement Award on Friday.
“I’m just thrilled,” says Suarez. “When you give, you’re not doing it for a reason or to be noticed.”
The goal for the annual achievement award is to set an example that all things are possible.
“We want to recognize people who are advocates for disabled communities,” says Sophia Rossovsky, the organization’s executive director.
With every passing year, Suarez says one thing has never changed — and that’s their “love for music and helping Latinos and people with disabilities.”