Mariachi’s Encore

By Mary Ann Zehr — May 01, 2003 8 min read
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Mexico’s traditional music of celebration takes on new resonance as American students tune in.

Many of them exhausted from working in the apple orchards and fruit-packing houses surrounding Wenatchee, Washington, some 100 Spanish-speaking parents flocked to the 1994 debut performance of the area’s first student mariachi band. Mark Fogelquist, a professional musician turned bilingual educator, had spent two months teaching 47 newly arrived Mexican middle and high school students the celebratory music of their native land.

Of the group, only one had ever picked up an instrument before signing up for the elective class that Fogelquist convinced his administrators to let him start that fall, a year after he arrived inWenatchee. The band’s repertoire was limited—the students had only learned two songs. Yet the music, performed using a combination of vocals, trumpets, violins, guitars, and two guitarlike instruments called the vihuela and guitarrón, left the crowd wanting more.

"¡Otra! ¡Otra! [Another!]” cried the parents, rising to their feet and applauding. Though the youngsters couldn’t comply with the request for an encore, they returned to their music classes inspired to work even harder. During the next few years, the Wenatchee group twice won competitions for being the best student mariachi band in the United States.

“I hammered away with those kids,” Fogelquist recalls, “but the enthusiasm was there. And it was their thing. They had heard the music.”

Today Fogelquist, a grandson of Danish and Swedish immigrants who has embraced Mexican culture, teaches in southern San Diego County’s Sweetwater Union High School District, which recruited him this past school year to teach mariachi full time. Located eight miles from the U.S.-Mexico border, Sweetwater is one of a growing number of districts using mariachi as a way to engage young Hispanics in school and deter them from dropping out. It runs one of the largest programs in the country, with classesin 10 of its 36 schools and nine full-time teachers on staff.

Sweetwater’s dropout rate is exceedingly low, especially considering that more than two-thirds of its 37,900 students are Hispanic—a segment of the population that nationally is at great risk of leaving school. The district has an annual dropout rate of 1.3 percent for all students and 1.9 percent for Hispanics in grades 7-12, far lower than overall national averages.

The district modeled its mariachi program after one in San Antonio, Texas. Belle Ortiz, a retired music teacher from the 57,600-student district, started the first mariachi elective in the nation at a high school there in 1970. Dozens of districts in the Southwest have followed suit, and still more plan to give the elective a try. California’s Orange Unified School District, for example, is poised to duplicate Sweetwater’s mariachi program and curriculum in two middle schools next fall.

“In the U.S., these groups have just blossomed as a result of trying to preserve the cultural roots of the family,” says Gilberto Soto, chairman of the fine and performing arts department at Texas A&M International University in Laredo, which hosts a mariachi festival each year for about 35 Texas middle and high schools. Ironically, he notes, mariachi groups are practically nonexistent at Mexican high schools.

Mariachi is “another room in the musical house that people can enter,” adds William A. Virchis, the director of visual and performing arts for the Sweetwater district. “We’re not building mariachis to play in restaurants,” he says. “We’re building musicians to play for life.”

Most Sweetwater mariachi students were born in the United States and have parents who emigrated from Mexico. Others are of Chinese, Filipino, or other ethnic origin and simply like the music.

“I can spend the whole day in my room playing and singing,” says 15-year-old Linda Uhila, a trumpet player in the most advanced mariachi ensemble at Chula Vista High School. Uhila, whose long black hair is wound into a neat bun and whose face is framed with large silver hoop earrings, began taking mariachi classes on trumpet in 7th grade, after playing violin in an orchestra program the year before. She says she was attracted to mariachi because “it was something different and part of my background.” Her maternal grandparents are natives of Mexico. Now in 10th grade, Linda plans to major in music in college, with a focus on mariachi.

Others see mariachi more as a pleasurable diversion. “It makes me want to go to school more because I have something fun to do,” says Jesse Torres, an 8th grader who plays trumpet at Montgomery Middle School. At home, he says, he practices only “once in a while.”

Keith R. Ballard, a former music teacher who is now a public relations officer for the district, started mariachi as a formal class four years ago, after a school board member endorsed his idea. At first, some people feared the elective would draw students away from traditional music classes. Instead, mariachi seems mostly to attract students—primarily Hispanics—who’ve had no previous musical experience, Ballard and other administrators say. At Montgomery, only seven of the 32 beginner violin students say they played an instrument before signing up for mariachi class. All but four of the beginners are Latinos.

Instead of drawing kids from existing music programs, mariachi seems mostly to attract students—primarily Hispanics—with no previous musical experience.

The addition of mariachi hasn’t cut into other music electives, observes Fred Marx, Montgomery’s band director. “There is plenty of room for both programs to flourish,” he says. But mariachi has sparked some resentment among traditional music teachers, he acknowledges. Because of the smaller class sizes, more money is spent per pupil on mariachi than in other programs. And, Marx adds, the district has tended to hire noncertified teachers for mariachi, while most of the other music teachers are licensed.

Ballard acknowledges that, with his superiors’ approval, he has focused on recruiting top musicians as mariachi teachers. Take José Salinas, a native of Mexico who studied classical violin and performed in mariachi bands for 40 years. He says he’s enjoyed the career switch to teaching in public schools, although he doesn’t relish the “sometimes disrespectful” behavior of some students. Salinas, however, treats his students with courtesy—"Quiet, please,” he says frequently— and seems to have won their respect through his demonstration of musical skill.

In his beginner violin class at Montgomery Middle one January afternoon, students struggle through the “Cancan” and “Cielito Lindo” while Salinas gently chides them, saying “Sit up straight. Use your full bow.” When the students play, the tunes are recognizable, but their music has poor intonation.

Salinas’ advanced violin students, however, produce music that pleases the ear. His instruction becomes much more fine-tuned. “Think of fiesta [and] horses,” he tells the group of 13 students. On the second try, their notes are fuller. “Your sound is nice and clear,” he tells one girl, imitating her tentative notes with his own bow, “but for this kind of music, you have to be more aggressive.”

Many mariachi students in Sweetwater have already tasted the rewards of performing. Montgomery Middle’s mariachi ensemble—Mariachi Griego—has played for then-President Bill Clinton, President Bush during his campaign, and U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige. By January, the Mariachi Chula Vista ensemble, directed by Fogelquist, had performed 40 times. Montgomery High’s Mariachi Azteca, directed by Guadalupe Gonzalez, also gets regular gigs at community events.

Students in the top- performing groups say that participating has motivated them academically. “To perform with Mariachi, you have to have a 2.0grade-point average,” explains Ivan Villarreal, a 10th grade violinist in the Chula Vista ensemble. “That made me think more about doing well in school. Before, I used to slack off.”

Just as mariachi has transformed some youngsters’ lives, the teenagers are also transforming the music.

“I was used to seeing older men playing mariachi,” says Linda, the trumpet player with Chula Vista’s top ensemble. “I heard mariachi on the radio. I never thought I’d be playing it.” Now, she’s proud to be breaking into a male-dominated form of music.

Eunice Aparicio, a 9th grader who plays the guitarrón with Montgomery High’s Mariachi Azteca, feels the same way. Gonzalez, her director, observes that even among the limited number of professional female mariachis, few play the guitarrón.

Along with the vihuela, a small, round-backed guitar, the guitarrón distinguishes mariachi from other Latin American music. It looks like an oversize guitar, but it is plucked instead of being strummed and establishes the bass beat for a mariachi group.

“If the guitarrón is off,” Eunice points out, “the whole thing is off.” Her tone of voice makes clear that she takes pains to ensure her guitarrón is not “off.”

‘I was used to seeing older men playing mariachi. ... I never thought I’d be playing it.’

Linda Uhila,
Student musician

Despite the performing experience of the Mariachi Azteca, a Saturday afternoon engagement at a city festival in January starts on a bad note. As dusk begins to fall, the young mariachis arrive onstage five minutes late because they waited for their student soloist to show up before boarding a school bus to get there. (They’ll later discover that the soloist wasn’t able to leave her part-time job at a pancake house on time and is driving directly to the performance. Confused about the location, she won’t arrive until after the show ends.)

The Azteca is the last group of the day. A couple of its initial songs lack energy, and the musicians look solemn. Gonzalez, the group’s director, fills in for the absent female vocalist with a rich, operatic tenor. The performance picks up energy, and the audience of about 50 responds.

As the band plays, a woman with long, curly hair croons the words of one song to her infant. An older couple dances swing steps on the sidewalk to another tune.

The show includes slow-paced tunes, in which the violins whine, as well as pieces with a quick tempo, in which fingers fly on vihuelas and create a beat that makes the audience want to dance. The performance ends on a strong note with a lively rendition of a mariachi classic, “La Negra.”

The audience applauds; some people call out, “¡Otra! ¡Otra!

These youngsters have an encore in store.


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