Article first published in Vol. 10, 1992. See 2017 update.
By Lynn Cordova and Frank R. Martinez
Crooning a song his grandmother might have sighed over in her day, the handsome young man sings of lost love and undying devotion. His fresh youthful face, shaded by his sombrero, is much too bright and shiny to make his woes believable. The crowd at the St. Raphael's Bazaar stops to listen and watch. For some it is a shock to see. Anglos in traditional mariachi finery singing in flawless Spanish.
My surprise is twofold: the group on stage consist of Eastwood High School students fascinated with music of another generation and for some, another culture. Second, I am impressed with their talent. They sound professional.
I later discovered that this group and ensembles from Del Valle and Bowie High Schools, among others, are trained as part of the local high school curriculum. The Ysleta Independent School District and the El Paso School District support and encourage the groups as cultural ambassadors in the community.
In the Ysleta school district the program started three years ago when the superintendent asked the fine arts director, Ramon Rivera, to start the program in the area high school curriculum. Guillermo Quezada, an instructor at Eastwood High School, volunteered to start the program. Quezada, finding great interest in the idea, decided, "If it's going to be done, let's do it right." The "Mariachi Reyna" was born.
The Eastwood High Group is made up of 17 musicians, 10 young women and seven young men, a departure from the traditional all-male mariachi band. They are a bicultural group with 30 percent of their members Anglo and the rest Hispanic. Quezada, although a professional educator, has no degree to teach folkloric music, if indeed there is such a thing, but he does have a lifelong love of the mariachi sound.
Zeke Castro, maestro at Del Valle High School, is a classically trained, professional violinist who has also played mariachi music for more than 20 years. There are 10 young women and 10 young men in "Primavera." Castro says the mixture reflects a growing interest by young people of both sexes in their musical history. They are encouraged to learn more about the music they hear at home and in their community.
The Del Valle group attended the annual Tucson International Mariachi Conference in April for Southwest area mariachi musicians. Members studied their individual instruments and performed in the concert featuring all groups in attendance, the highlight of the conference. Similar conferences are held in Salinas and Los Angeles, California; and in San Antonio, Texas, in the summer.
The El Paso Independent School District also has a very successful mariachi music program. Pete Ramos, Principal of Bowie High School, liked the idea of a mariachi band. Ricardo Barragon, a vocal music and guitar instructor at the high school, was a natural choice to start the program.
"Los Osos Orgullosos," the "Proud Bears," perform nearly every week. The 21 students in the group are made up of mostly Hispanics, 12 young women and nine young men. They welcome visiting dignitaries at the airport and perform for many area functions.
Both school districts have been very supportive of the mariachi program. The hardest item for the groups to locate is sheet music for this traditional folk music. Normally, mariachi music is learned by imitating the masters of the unique sound, not by following written music.
To overcome this obstacle, instructors and other musicians throughout the area share materials and ideas about their music in workshops. They agree that this folk music is relatively easy to play technically, but difficult to perform stylistically.
All three maestro anticipate that a least some of their students will continue in this musical tradition. The present time these performers genuinely enjoy the music. Trumpeter Eric Parra, a junior at Eastwood, says, "The music is a lot of fun, and the musicians all get along. This is a fun group."
These young mariachis develop a lot of poise through performing. Some hope to use their experience to become professional musicians or at least be able to supplement their future incomes.
The high school groups do not compete with each other but rather support one another . The folk groups are asked to play for a variety of occasions such as birthdays, receptions, charity functions, quinceañeras, serenades and holiday such as Mother's Day.
If one group is already engaged on a particular date, another high school band plays. Prices for a performance may vary from $15 to $275 an hour. Quezada says the demand for these mariachis are great. The bands have full schedules and are turning down many opportunities to perform.
To meet the growing demand for mariachis, Barragon proposes that both school systems train younger students who show an interest in the music at the intermediate school level.
The unique mariachi program allows border youth an opportunity to discover their musical heritage at a time when society is preoccupied with nostalgia. The popular music of the '40s and '50s in the Hispanic community is re-emerging as teenagers discover their musical roots and continue the mariachi tradition.