Photo Information

U.S. Marine Corps Cpl. Ana Paola Rincones, a flautist with the 1st Marine Division Band, plays a flute solo during a concert at Cité de la Musique et de la Danse de Soissons, France, May 25, 2023. The division band held multiple concerts throughout northern France to honor the 105th anniversary of the Battle of Belleau Wood. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Kayla Halloran)

Photo by Cpl. Kayla Halloran

A Venezuelan Musician’s Journey to join the U.S. Marine Corps

1 Mar 2024 | Lance Cpl. Madisyn Paschal Marine Corps Forces South

Nine-year-old Ana Paola Rincones Urbina was fixated on the delicate flute in her hands. She studied the flute while the chatter of other children became distant to her. As she ran her fingers along the cool metal keys, a fire began to burn inside her. The year was 1996 and it was her first day learning and playing the instrument at the Symphony Orchestra of Nueva Esparta state, Youth and Children’s Orchestras of Venezuela at Margarita Island, a social music program that offered children the opportunity to learn music for free.

Rincones gazed out the small broken window at the beach of the coastal island from the second story of the worn-out house. The walls, the windows and music stands, all rusted by the ocean. The smell of saltwater and the sound of waves lapping over one another in the ocean drifted through the window as Rincones’ heart raced faster than ever before. Something beyond her was speaking. “I’m making this sound,” she thought as she continued to play the flute.

Another student standing near Rincones, a boy around the age of 13 who played percussion, told her, “At El Sistema, we take care of each other.”

Rincones said, “When I was in school, I never felt a part of my community because we were the kids of Colombian immigrants. In that time, that was the way they used to see us. Colombians weren’t too accepted.”

Although she was born and raised on Margarita Island, Venezuela, she came from a Colombian household and didn’t fit in with the other local children. She was quiet and shy and had an accent that was unlike other kids’ accents.

“Being in those surroundings, my mom was always striving for us to have a good education,” she said. “She was always putting us in courses to try to find something that my brothers and I were passionate about. She wanted to give us the tools to be professionals in our future.”

After her first day in the program, young Rincones raced to the market to her parents’ workplace. Excitement bubbled up inside her like a fizzy soda. She was out of breath by the time she arrived. With her eyes shining bright and her cheeks rosy, she announced to her family with a toothy grin, “I will be a musician my whole life!” She had found a place where her background didn’t matter, and it was all about practicing endless hours.

True to her word, Rincones would go on to achieve notable milestones in her musical journey, earning a Bachelor’s in Musical Performance from the National University of the Arts and a Master’s in Musical Performance from Simon Bolivar University in Caracas, Venezuela.

Throughout the period from 2000 to 2014, she extensively traveled to various countries, participating in music courses, festivals, and competitions, where her exceptional talent garnered numerous awards. As her career progressed, Rincones dedicated herself to educating the next generation of musicians, teaching at different centers, including the Youth and Children’s Orchestras and Choirs of Venezuela, Simón Bolívar Conservatory of Music, and serving as the associate director of the National Flutist Association of Venezuela. Additionally, she contributed as a flute and piccolo player for the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra.

Beyond her roles in education and performance, Rincones became the host of the TV show “El País Orquesta,” delving into discussions about the orchestras and musical ensembles of the Youth and Children’s Orchestras and Choirs of Venezuela. Expanding her horizons, she ventured into design, leading to the launch of a line of flute bags named “Auctor.” Her artistic endeavors extended to music production, with her first album, "Elegante Guajira" vol.1, serving as a tribute to her Colombian roots. This album received acclaim, winning the 2017 Pepsi Music Award for Best Classical Album.

With all these achievements, Rincones’ dream would continue to be that someday her parents would be seated together, listening to her perform.

Although Rincones led a successful career in Venezuela, hardships in her country would force her to flee to America where she would embark on an entirely new chapter in her music career as a United States Marine.

“I fled Venezuela with my husband. Socially, economically, and politically, it was very bad,” she said with a pensive visage. “It was a hard decision to leave our family, traditions and idiosyncrasy, considering how much time and energy and effort we put into ourselves and our careers.”

During this time, protests around the country were escalating. There was a severe shortage of food, medicine and gas. Basic services like water and power were hard to come by and salaries weren’t enough to sustain the basics, she said.

As she drove past barricades on her way to teach one day, she looked out at the cloudy sky above her. She closed her eyes for only a brief second, praying to God she wouldn’t be stopped by any of the military that patrolled the streets constantly. Once on the other side of the barricades, she glanced around at a site too familiar: thin bodies clawing through the trash in large garbage trucks in search of food. Trash laid strewn out in the street around the trucks as some of the people moaned from hunger. Her heart sank.

“We had a curfew and the cities were militarized. Airlines were closing their functions, and the media was forced to end its operations. Every day was stressful, yet we managed to live them,” she said. “No one was safe from being hit, robbed or something worse. I felt I was living two different lives from music and my personal life.”

On her last day in Venezuela in 2017, tears threatened to spill from her usually lively eyes as she prepared to leave with her husband, Yonathan Gavidia. Her eyes seemed dark, tired from lack of sleep. Her usual smile was tugged down into one hard-set line. She studied her surroundings.

The light coming in from the nearby window cast a glow on her apartment and all her belongings, her books, music sheets, instruments, gear and furniture. Because the country was so heavily militarized, the only way to safely leave was to make it seem as if they were only going on vacation by leaving everything behind before crossing over into Colombia. A tear slipped as she put her head in her hands. “I wish I could see my family,” she thought.

She grabbed her phone to call her mother one last time before leaving Venezuela. A tear spilled onto the screen as she dialed the number, the anxiety and guilt of leaving her family almost too much to bear.

“You have to be brave. Trust in God and be confident that one day things will be different,” her mother told her in Spanish, her voice thick with emotion while trying to uplift her daughter.

She continued, “It might look like you’re leaving with nothing, but you’re leaving with something that cannot fit in a suitcase.”

“That was the moment I really understood their investment in my education. My parents instilled in me discipline, love, respect, and gratitude, to be generous with others and with everything we do,” she said. “They taught me that whatever it was, I must work very hard to chase my dreams and shape my ideas with responsibility, commitment, effort and patience. They taught me to look out for others, that when I feel hurt, to never forget God is right there with me, to pray for not feeling alone and to have a sense of forgiveness. These are values that I deeply cherish and practice with all I do.”

“It was never the plan to leave Venezuela without proper planning; what was a 5 or so year plan, became a “it’s now” plan,” she said. “That was one of the scariest decisions I’ve ever made with the uncertainty of not having enough economical resources to build a life outside and leaving everything behind along with my family, friends, students, and everything I knew.”

With only two packed suitcases in her possession, Rincones departed into an uncertain future with hopes of new opportunities.

Although the couple’s plans were to leave for America, they first sought refuge in the comfort of her parents’ homeland. They didn’t have the necessary funds to make such a big move just yet. Because of her Colombian heritage, Rincones was able to stay in Colombia as a citizen. However, Gavidia was not. He moved to Los Angeles, California before Rincones joined him almost seven months later in 2018.

“It's very scary moving to a foreign land, especially one that is different in language,” she said. “You think you are coming here with nothing, but then you realize that you are bringing your brain. You’re bringing all your values, your skill sets, your knowledge, anything that you have learned so far.”

With profound ties to both Venezuela and Colombia, Rincones contributed a fresh perspective by bringing her unique experiences and musical expertise into a new environment. In the Marine Corps, a celebration of diverse backgrounds goes beyond acceptance; it serves as a vital link, fostering trust and understanding between the U.S. and other nations.

After living in Los Angeles for a few months, Rincones stumbled upon an ad on Facebook one day while searching for any available music positions. Her dark brown eyes widened as she hurriedly read the ad over. She ignored everything the flier said, except that they were looking for a flute and piccolo player, as her fingers flew across the keyboard, reaching out to the account and sending her biography and various videos of her work.

During this time, she was in the process of obtaining her green card and could not legally work. Determined to support her husband in this new place, she searched for ways to earn an income. As she finished typing, she plopped her phone down and smiled. She agreed to play what she thought was a cash gig for the Marine Corps.

The next day, Rincones and her husband ventured to a Starbucks in North Hills, Los Angeles. The rich scent of coffee filled their noses as they entered. Before being seated, they were greeted by an eager recruiter, Staff Sgt Josh Waldie, who was previously in the Marine Corps band, and another recruiter who could act as a Spanish translator if need be. They were from Recruiting Station Granada Hills, dressed pristinely in their Dress Blue Deltas.

Rincones said, “We brought with us all our documentation to demonstrate we were here legally and with an ongoing process for our residence. They were ready to recruit, and I was ready to obtain my gig or at least to defend our legality in the U.S.”

Shaking Waldie’s hand with a firm grip, she smiled and asked him, “Where is the gig?”

“It depends on what unit you end up with,” he replied, oblivious to what she really meant.

Cheerfully, he proceeded to tell her of all the benefits she would receive by joining the Marine Corps, such as health and life insurance. He went into depth about the opportunities in the Musician Enlistment Option Program. As he talked, Rincones shifted in her chair, following along. She was only waiting to hear when and where the gig would be.

“All this for a gig?” she questioned the recruiter with furrowed brows.

Gavidia whispered to his wife, “I think they think you want to join.”

Realization struck Waldie like a lightning bolt. He rushed to explain to her the ad was to join the Marine Corps band, not for a one-time ordeal.

Rincones laughed and looked back and forth between the two recruiters, “Me? Join the Marine Corps?”

As the recruiters displayed the types of gigs and what it meant to be a United States Marine, fascination budded within Rincones.

Rincones tucked her long dark hair behind her ear. Curious, Rincones asked questions about the war-fighting organization and the band to which Waldie answered openly and honestly. As they talked, a fire in her started to burn similar to the one she felt when she was nine.

Heading back, she looked to her husband and said with determination in her eyes, “I’m going to do this.”

“I wasn’t sure what I was getting into, but there was something I really knew I wanted to do, which was to challenge myself, to learn for myself,” she said. “I knew from the beginning it would be a lot of blood, sweat and tears, but I wanted to give something back to the country that opened its doors to my husband and I. We are very blessed to be here.”

For the next two years, every Sunday, Rincones would study with the Marines to prepare her for the ASVAB. Not only did she have to learn a new language and relearn various subjects, she also had to get in shape to pass the Marine Corps’ fitness tests, something she never had to do before. The burning conviction in her gut pushed her through every mile, pull up, and knowledge question.

“I felt a call. I felt aligned with the values that this organization gives,” she said. “And yeah, I really wanted to feel that sense of belonging and pride of wearing the uniform.”

At 33 years old, Rincones reported to Oscar Company, 4th Battalion, Marine Corps Recruit Depot, Parris Island, South Carolina in November 2020. In April 2021, Private First Class Rincones bypassed the Naval School of Music and reported directly to the 1st Marine Division Band, in Camp Pendleton, California where she served as a flute instrumentalist. In October 2021, she became a U.S. Citizen.

“Through the military, I have met wonderful people, and nothing makes me happier than to see my friends, people I consider my family, be successful,” she said. “Anytime I have the opportunity to be with my Marines, I make sure to let them know how great they are.”

Although this is one of Sgt Rincones’ favorite parts of being in the Marine Corps, one special performance will always be closest to her heart.

The concert hall, Cité de la Musique et de la Danse de Soissons, France, was currently empty and dark, but in a few hours, it would be full of individuals buzzing with excitement and chatter, a pre-symphony to the orchestrated one. The 1st Marine Division Band had held multiple concerts throughout northern France to honor the 105th anniversary of the Battle of Belleau Wood in May of 2023.

That night was an important one; she would play a solo piece. More importantly to
Rincones, her parents and cousins would be in the audience.

During rehearsal, Rincones could hardly focus. With butterflies in her stomach, she tried earnestly to keep herself distracted and prepare for the concert. However, she couldn’t help but count down the hours until seeing her family.

After a soundcheck, Rincones walked to the closest grocery store to buy snacks. As she stood in the checkout line, she received a call from her husband informing her that her family had arrived at the concert hall. As if lit by a flame, Rincones abandoned her purchases and bolted out of the store. With her heart pounding, she sprinted as fast as her legs could carry her back to the concert hall.

And there they were.

“Dad! Mom!” She screamed at the top of her lungs as tears began to trickle down her cheeks.

In the blink of an eye, she fell into their arms, a surreal moment unfolding before her. Holding them tightly, Rincones melted in their embraces. Their scent was exactly as she remembered. They looked skinnier, older, but they were healthy, and they were right there with her.

Through careful coordination and multiple days of travel, Rincones’ family traveled from Venezuela, through Colombia and made it to France just to watch their daughter perform with the Marine Corps Band.

Six long years had passed since they last saw each other. This was also the first time they saw Rincones in uniform.

That night, Rincones played the Concertino by Cécile Chaminade underneath a light’s dim glow. The melody trickled from her lips to the flute to the audience, kissing the ears of every listener. To see her parents seated together in the audience, had made not only for an exquisite evening, but had made her dreams come true at last.

Although she performed in front of an audience of 600 guests, she played for her family.

Rincones’ parents gazed at her in total silence, their faces gleaming with pride and admiration of their daughter.

Rincones said, “I share connections. I share music. I share knowledge. I always go with an open heart to every single Marine in my unit. I always want to be a support because that's what I learned through music.”

Still living up to her word, Sgt Rincones continues to achieve milestones in her musical journey through various performances with the 1st Marine Division Band. Her awards in the Marine Corps include the Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medal, the 2023 Distinguished Military Service award and the Major Megan McClung Leadership award.


U.S. Marine Corps Forces, South is the U.S. Marine Corps component of U.S. Southern Command, responsible for building and maintaining relationships with our allies and partner nations in Central America, South America, and the Caribbean. We build capabilities and capacity with like-minded democratic nations through a range of military engagements and other security cooperation events to demonstrate the value and utility of the Navy and Marine Corps team through joint and mutually supporting operations and engagements. We cultivate partnerships across the region to promote the rule of law, which is essential for security, stability, economic prosperity, and personal liberty. Additionally, strong partnerships, shared knowledge, and joint and multinational interoperability enables burden sharing and crisis response while strengthening our common defense, fostering stability, and defeating threats.