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From Cantinas To Classrooms: Mariachi Music A 'Sanctuary' For Students

If you’ve ever eaten at a Mexican restaurant or attended a Mexican wedding — or other celebratory occasion — you’ve probably encountered a band of mariachis.

Now, mariachi music has expanded beyond the usual haunts. Mariachi programs have blossomed in schools nationwide in the last couple of decades.

At a mariachi workshop held in San Antonio, as part of the recent 23rd Mariachi Vargas Extravaganza, students from across the country half-filled one of the ballrooms inside the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center. The violins were grouped in the right corner. The guitars took up several rows on the left half of the room, and the trumpets sat some rows back, behind the violins.

Credit Norma Martinez
Pedro Garcia and Ernesto Guerra


Guitarist Ernesto Guerra of Valley View has had mariachi running through his veins since he was a child. He said an elementary school mariachi program

ensured he could keep playing the music he loved.

“I started off in fifth grade just (with) a normal guitar. As I entered sixth grade,” Guerra said, “I started off with mariachi. I pretty much had the mindset of going into the mariachi world. The only reason I could get into guitar was through the mariachi program.”

Guitarist Pedro Garcia, a high school student from Hidalgo, found himself in similar circumstances. His school didn’t have a guitar program, and mariachi was his only option.

“I hated mariachi when I first started,” Garcia said.  “I didn’t like it. Now, I love it. I listen to it every day.”

Violinist Shana Welch of Las Vegas shared a similar story.

Credit Norma Martinez
Shana Welch

“I was actually in orchestra, but because of budget cuts at school, mariachi was the only thing left that was music,” she said.

The mariachi program offered lots of opportunities Welch said she might not have had with a high school orchestra. Her group played with the Cuban reggaeton band, Gente de Zona.

“We were able to back them up on ‘Despierta America,’ ” said Welch of the Spanish-language morning TV show on Univision. “I was able to attend the Latin Grammys because of that experience.”

Welch also had the chance to appear on the popular Spanish-language talk show “El Gordo y La Flaca”  and meet the host Raúl De Molina.

“I was able to play on his show and talk to him personally,” she said. “So I’d have to say the mariachi (program) has offered me really cool experiences to meet celebrities.”

Credit Norma Martinez
Carlos Maldonado

Workshop instructor Carlos Maldonado said his mariachi program at Hays Consolidated Independent School District in San Marcos expanded from one small elementary school class in 2001 to 400 students district wide, spanning elementary through high school. Maldonado said mariachi class gives students a way to forget about their everyday problems.

“Mariachi – and it’s the same for band or choir – that music class, it’s their sanctuary during the day,” he said. “That’s the one class they get up every day to go to.”

And that class can take students outside the classroom into a world they never dreamed.

Norma Martinez can be reached by email at norma@tpr.org and on Twitter @NormDog1

Norma Martinez can be reached at norma@tpr.org and on Twitter at @NormDog1