As parents and children gathered for a back-to-school rally on Friday morning in the gym of De Zavala Elementary School, the strains of mariachi music suddenly filled the air. Gabriela Villasana, in the head-to-toe red mariachi regalia of Fox Tech High School, launched into a full-throated rendition of La Charreada, the traditional welcoming song.

Villasana sang to help promote the expansion of mariachi programs to several San Antonio Independent School District elementary and middle schools, and was joined by dancers Lily Cura and Lauren Ortiz to celebrate the return of ballet folklorico programs to SAISD after a decades-long absence.

The SAISD Fine Arts department and the nonprofit SAISD Foundation have partnered to bring or expand mariachi and dance programs to 12 schools, including De Zavala, Bonham Academy, Brackenridge High School, Jefferson High School, Longfellow Middle School, and Young Women’s Leadership Academy (YWLA)’s primary level, which are getting ballet folklorico. Elementary schools Ball, Barkley-Ruiz, Herff, J.T. Brackenridge, and Smith will have mariachi, along with Democracy Prep at Stewart Campus at the middle school level.

“We’re blessed that the superintendent sees this as important enough to bring back to the heart of San Antonio,” said Dianne Marks, fine arts coordinator of dance and spirit programs, which includes dance and cheer teams and pep squad.

From the administrative perspective, the programs will add opportunities for student competition through the University Interscholastic League (UIL). As with sports teams, student music and dance groups vie for regional and statewide recognition through annual extracurricular competitions.

Out of seven existing mariachi programs in SAISD schools, six advanced to the state competition in 2019, according to Daniel Loudenback, executive director of SAISD fine arts.

“This expansion is all about preparing our kids to be more competitive, and then expanding the reach of our programs allowing more students to participate,” Loudenback said. “In the end, the belief is that if we do those two things, it will lead to academic gains.”

From the perspective of students, participation in these programs provides inspiration, motivation, consolation, and an avenue toward self-esteem.

After singing, Villasana acknolwedged that pariticipation in the mariachi program is an added responsibility in an already packed academic schedule, but she finds it essential to her overall success.

“As a student, it’s definitely an outlet for me,” she said. “I get to my mariachi class, tired of everything — tired of my English and my math classes — and it’s just relaxing. For me music is therapy, and that’s why I love it so much.”

Cura is a 2021 Jefferson High School graduate headed to Texas State University as a dance major. During her time at Jefferson the school did not have a folklorico program, so she had to continue her dancing outside of school.

She said she returned to San Antonio to dance for students at De Zavala because she is elated to learn that ballet folklorico will become part of her alma mater’s regular programs.

“It means the world to me. I wish I was still here,” she said, laughing.

Her dance partner Ortiz, a 2019 YWLA graduate who’s now a junior at the University of the Incarnate Word, said that having the joy and happiness of dance as something to look forward to during the school day is not to be underestimated.

“School is not the best thing,” she said. “But dance really made me happy during school, even at the the roughest times. Even if there’s rough times at home, it just made me so happy.”

Ortiz is pursuing a lifelong goal by applying to nursing school. “I have some big hopes and dreams for nursing. I’ve been wanting to do it since I was little,” she said. Folklorico dancing has instilled the confidence she has needed to stay steadfast in her pursuit, and will contribute to her work as a nurse, she said.

“Honestly, I think that it would help me as a nurse because you get to see so many different people, so many different backgrounds. You get to really see how different everybody is as an individual. And I just appreciate it for showing me that at such a young age,” Ortiz said.

With funds raised by the SAISD Foundation, the total amount of funding through the 2022-23 school year will be $400,000, split between the two programs. The money will be used to purchase instruments, costumes, and equipment, and pay for UIL contest entry fees.

SAISD Foundation Executive Director Judy Geelhoed said the goals of the SAISD fine arts program and the foundation align when it comes to expanding arts programs. “It’s been a goal of ours for a long time, too,” she said.

The foundation had previously funded extracurricular mariachi and folklorico clubs, and Geelhoed witnessed “the interest and the passion from the kids,” but lamented that “they didn’t have a pathway up” to pursue their interests as they advanced through school.

That the programs will become a fixture in more schools is “good news at a good time,” she said.

And, she hopes, more good news is on the way, with a goal to expand to yet more schools in the district.

“Our aim is to add 10 new programs a year for the next two school years,” Geelhoed said in a news announcement. “With 90% of the student population identifying as Hispanic, one of our strategic priorities is to expand cultural arts programs that honor the culture and heritage of our largest student population.”

Nicholas Frank

Nicholas Frank moved from Milwaukee to San Antonio following a 2017 Artpace residency. Prior to that he taught college fine arts, curated a university contemporary art program, toured with an indie rock...