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'Mariachi has changed my life': Mexican music grabs US students

Courtesy of Ramon Rivera

Members of the Wenatchee High School mariachi band get ready to perform at the Washington Apple Blossom Festival in Yakima, Wash., on April 28.

Mariachi is resounding in hundreds of U.S. public schools offering the festive Mexican folk music as part of their band classes, music experts say. Many student musicians will get a chance to show their passion for it at events surrounding Cinco de Mayo on Saturday.

“Its popularity has exploded, and music programs all around the country are bursting with enthusiasm,” said Ramon Rivera, the mariachi program director for the Wenatchee School District in Wenatchee, Wash. His mariachi program boasts 300 students, he says, and draws more young players every year from the community of 30,000 residents in north-central Washington.

Mariachi bands are no longer confined to states along the U.S. border or American cities with growing Hispanic populations, said Daniel Sheehy, a mariachi expert and director of the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage in Washington, D.C.

At least 500 U.S. public schools now offer mariachi as part of their music curricula and there are local and state competitions, Sheeny said. He said members at the Music Educators National Conference have created a task force to see how many mariachi programs had taken root in the last five years.

"Mariachi has all the ingredients to make it a powerful movement," Sheeny said. "It’s infectious and honest music and a touchstone of identity." Sheehy has studied the genre for nearly three decades and is the author of "Mariachi Music in America: Experiencing Music, Expressing Culture."

Many school bands are gearing up for Cinco de Mayo celebrations. “There is a saying that we live and breathe mariachi in Texas, and that’s no joke,” said Robert Rodriguez, a mariachi director for the Victor Independent School District in Victoria, Texas. “Cinco de Mayo is one of the biggest days for us. We’ll be playing all day long, from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.” He said he teaches mariachi to 50 students from the district’s two high schools.

In the Las Vegas area, the Clark County School District's mariachi program has experienced a boom. "We started with four schools and about 250 students in the first year," said Javier Trujillo, who was recruited to help develop the program in southern Nevada in 2002. He said within a decade, the program blossomed to include 15 schools, 16 instructors and 2,500 students. He said he doesn't teach in the schools anymore, but plays in a mariachi band.

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Marcia Neel, who retired this year as coordinator of secondary fine arts for Clark County schools, said Trujillo was being modest about the mariachi program's growth in Las Vegas.

"I would say the numbers of students involved in mariachi is somewhere near 3,000 students," she said. "Mariachi is so popular that I have made it my own personal business, and I have been busy."

She said school districts in Iowa, Tennessee and northern Nevada have invited her to help start mariachi programs at their middle and high schools.

"It is folk music of a country that engages not only the child, but the parent and the entire family," she said. "What is not to love about it?"

The growing number of Mexican-Americans has helped bump up the number of youths interested in the music from their homeland, music instructors say.

But students say it's the beat and the joy of the music that drew them.

"It's my passion, I love it," said Monica Moreno, 14, from Wenatchee High School.

She said she grew up listening to mariachi in her home, where her parents often danced to the music.

"I couldn't stand it," Moreno said. "I hated listening to it while I was growing up. Then everything changed when I watched a performance of mariachi performers at high school. They had passion. They had smiles. They were having fun and that's when I knew I wanted to play in a mariachi band."

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Moreno plays the violin in Wenatchee High School's ninth-grade program.

"I will never stop doing it," she said.

The music of mariachi originated in the state of Jalisco, in Mexico, sometime during the 19th century. While no one knows for sure how mariachi started, the style is certain. Musicians wear elaborate traditional suits of the horseman, traje de charro. Love, betrayal, revolutionary heroes, even animals are common themes of mariachi songs. Common instruments are violins, trumpets, guitars, vihuelas (a five-stringed relative of the guitar), and the guitarrón (a large-bodied acoustic bass).

Megan Howard, a 12-year-old seventh-grader at Pioneer Middle School in Wenatchee, says she had always wanted to play guitar but wasn’t interested in classical instruction.

Howard said she first learned how to play mariachi music in fifth grade and now wants to try out for a spot on the high school's mariachi team.

“The music is beautiful, upbeat and fun to play,” said Howard. She said her heart beats along to mariachi.

“Through the music and the musicians I learned about how Mexicans care [about] their land,” she said. “I’ve learned not only to play, but learned to appreciate things that are important in life. Mariachi has changed my life.”

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