Getting in Tune with Mariachi Music

by Maestro on January 9, 2011

in Mariachi, Mariachi Education

Mariachi Huenanchi from Wenatchee High School

By Linda Woo

Reprinted with permission from the Washington Education Association.

Just a mile from downtown Wenatchee, 90 students gather daily to create and hone the music of the majority of their elders’ homeland.

They get numerous invitations to play in community events, games and grand openings. They pick up awards, Spanish, and along the way, lessons that mariachi teacher Ramon Rivera hopes will sustain his students for life.
With high dropout rates among Hispanic and Latino students, connecting students to school by way of music is one way to keep the district’s largest ethnic group academically engaged.

“Our class is like a family for these kids,” says Rivera, Wenatchee High School’s mariachi teacher and music department chairman. “What this program brings to our students is cultural pride, school pride and pride in themselves, and this really connects the kids to schools.”

Mariachi is a centuries-old musical tradition that hails from the Mexican state of Jalisco and the surrounding region. In Wenatchee and cities wherever there is an influx of Mexican immigrants, mariachi is an alternative to traditional band, orchestra or choir for students. Ensembles typically include a couple of trumpets, a guitar, violins and ethnic instruments:  the five-stringed vihuelas, which resemble little guitars (pronounced vee-way-las) and guitarrons, the big-bellied bass.

In Wenatchee, the mariachi program has blossomed in popularity and size to include 300 students districtwide. Every year high school students audition to be part of one of the three coveted groups, including the elite Mariachi Huenachi. Mariachi also is offered at two elementary and three middle schools.

Mariachi not only gave Miguel Zuniga closer ties with his family, it gave the Wenatchee High School senior one more reason to stay in school.

“I’ve learned a lot,” Zuniga says. “This class gives you more experiences to go out and see places I’ve never been to.”
Rivera says the music is more than just entertainment for students because it teaches commitment and discipline and sets students on the right path. He tries to have a no-F policy, and there is an expectation that students do well in all of their classes.

Through work with Gear Up and migrant education programs, students are exposed to colleges and scholarships and help they normally wouldn’t seek. Students are paired with tutors and mentors, if needed, so they can succeed in school.

“I tell them every day is audition,” he says. “I’m going to look at your attitude, how hard you work —because if you don’t hang, there are others who want that spot.”

“It’s good that they are good musicians but we want them to become leaders in the community, and that’s what this program has done for a lot of these students.”

Mariachi Huenachi from Wenatchee High School

Part of the Wenatchee’s success, says Rivera, is because of the district’s steadfast support of music for every student who wants to learn and play. Mariachi is in addition to another 10 strong music offerings in Wenatchee. Rivera says he’s fortunate but also knows it’s not the same in other places given the deep budgetary cuts every district is facing.

“I believe if you give a kid a violin; if you give a kid a guitar; if you give a kid a trumpet, they won’t join a gang. They won’t pick up the knife; they won’t pick up the gun and they won’t do something negative,” he says.

“I would imagine if we didn’t have this program at Wenatchee High School, a lot of kids would not make it to receive their diplomas and that’s what keeps me going all the time.”

Aside from encouraging Hispanic students, mariachi is bringing parents into schools who might have been too intimidated to visit before. School concerts and community events are often packed with parents, grandparents and relatives who know all the old songs and are often heard singing along. The music becomes a kind of “cultural glue” in some cases, because students are seeking advice on proper pronunciation of Spanish songs.

“I didn’t know how to play an instrument before,” tenth-grader Itza Luquin says. “I started on guitar then switched to vihuela. It makes me feel good to play in Mariachi Huenachi and I enjoy being around them (my classmates).”
Senior Eddie Cortes says each serenade teaches him the value of his culture, history and language.

“Orchestra is fun but mariachi is part of my culture,” he says. “I’ve learned the different styles of mariachi. It’s fun to play.”

Twice each month, Rivera takes Mariachi Huenachi on the road, performing at Washington State, Eastern and Central Washington universities and various special events including the Folklife Festival in Seattle and before Gov. Chris Gregoire. The outings are as much about performing as well as building confidence and pride.

“I always add a tour of the campus and meeting the director of admissions, or meeting a vice president or meeting a dean because what that does is it’s making a connection,” Rivera says. “A lot of the families won’t get in the car and go visit the University of Washington. They don’t have the time or the resources.

“Some of them have never been to a hotel and have never stayed overnight,” Rivera says. “A lot of parents work in agriculture, and they have 10 people living in one apartment, and we wonder why they don’t succeed when they have poverty like this working against them. What I tell them is education is the key to get out of poverty. The best way to help your family is to get an education.”

For senior Maria Cortes, a performance at Washington State University helped her find her future college.
“I don’t play sports so I thought I should do something,” the WSU-bound Cortes says. “I like the opportunity it gives us.”

The contributions Rivera has made extend far beyond the musical abilities he patiently passes on to the students, senior Laurie Bazán says. The mariachi program has turned around the lives of kids who were once disruptive in class, who were failing or at risk of joining gangs, she says.

“Being in Mariachi Huenachi, I’ve traveled to a lot of universities that maybe I wouldn’t have had the chance to visit if it hadn’t been for the mariachi program,” says Bazán, who will attend the University of Washington this fall on a full scholarship as a Gates Millennium Scholar.

“Yes, it is about the music and we do learn about our music and our culture, but it’s also about being the first in the family to go to college,” Bazán says. “Mr. Rivera has moved mountains just so students can get into universities (and) get transcripts ready. He knows the importance of education and I think he really knows what students go through in a low-income home, in a migrant home — and I think that’s what helps him so much, being able to connect to the students.”

Spontaneous jam sessions often pick up when class officially ends. Students huddle around to play and sing along to tunes coming from someone’s iPod.

“What keeps me going is these guys are accomplishing something bigger than music,” Rivera says, before joining in with his trumpet. “They are going to universities. They’re going to schools. They’re becoming leaders.”

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Pocahontas April 21, 2011 at 11:05 am

How much dou charge? I’m having a slumber party this weekend and wanted some music. do u guys play at fleemarkets? u wud make bank there!!!!!!!!

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Brent Hubbard Jr. August 5, 2011 at 4:06 am

I had the honor of playing in the mariachi azteca, and the mariachi huenachi.
I’m also in the folklorico group!

good times, but I graduated in June, so I can’t be in the group anymore :(

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