To the average American, mariachis come with a side of chips and salsa.
Time to change that tune, because things are quickly changing. Mariachi music has found its way into the classroom.
It’s after school hours, but Brackenridge High School student Oscar Garza isn’t hanging out with friends, or at home. He’s pulling his violin out of its case, standing at his assigned post. Garza ensures his peers are also ready to play when director John Nieto asks.
Brackenridge’s ensemble Mariachi Aguila (Eagles) recently came back from the Edinburg State Mariachi Contest, where they earned a 1st division qualification: earning the right to go to state finals. It is the 4th year Aguilas has received such a hallowed honor.
“It’s an awesome experience,” Garza said. “Not everyone can say they’ve gone to a mariachi competition.”
It might be a music class, but things are run like a sports team. A detailed vocal warm up routine is followed daily, and footage of past concerts is studied, where students spot and fix errors.
Focus on academics are just as important as memorizing the music. Aguilas students must be in good standing to perform and travel to competitions across the state.
“We have to keep our grades up, otherwise we can’t play.” Garza said. “We all try hard, because without one person there, it just doesn’t sound the same. We need everyone.”
Going over their showy competition piece, Brackenridge High School mariachi director John Nieto stands in the sidelines, keeping time.
“The competition is fierce, but the students have fun, and take responsibility,” Nieto said, turning back to his students.
From Mariachi Bar to the Ivy League
The Mexican Mariachi sounds of at least a century ago have come a long way. Impossible to trace back any Mozart’s of mariachi: this music belonged to the commoners. People sang about the triumphs, joys and sorrows of their country.
It’s a loud, exuberant kind of music. With boisterous trumpets, romantic violins, and the warm sounds of the iconic vihuela and guitarron, Mariachi music can capture every type of emotion.A Ranchera can belt out the sorrows of a lost love, while the softer bolero sings praises of a long withstanding relationship.
What was once considered “bar music” is being performed at Ivy-League universities across the nation, including Mariachi Véritas De Harvard University and Mariachi Cardenal de Stanford.
Texas State University in San Marcos was the first in the country to offer a degree for the sounds that first birthed south of the border.
States like Tennessee, Idaho and Oregon and of course, Texas have integrated the music genre into public schools. The music-based curriculum welcomes students of all ages. Pupils range from first graders picking up a violin for the first time to university undergrads working on a degree specializing in mariachi.
However, the Alamo City is the bandleader that set the stage for national attention.
San Antonio is Pioneer in Mariachi Education
Belle San Miguel Ortiz — considered the matriarch of Mariachi education — led the chorus.
“I felt the majority of our students were Hispanic, and they didn’t know the music of the country,” San Miguel Ortiz said. “Sure, they knew it was folk music and their parents listened to it, but that was it. I wanted to change that.
“Mariachi is a style, but you need to know your basics,” San Miguel Ortiz continued. “You need to know how to read music, you need to know to sing on pitch, and ear training. It’s all basic.”
To this day, SAISD is the largest district in the county to teach the program. More than 2,000 students in 18 schools study the art form. Many schools use Belle’s ideals as the basis on which to teach their classes.
Then in 1979, the awareness of mariachi was pushed even farther when Juan Ortiz, San Miguel’s husband — considered the patriarch of mariachi education — brought world-renowned, Mexico City based Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlán to perform in San Antonio.
That action established the first mariachi festival of its kind in the United States: other major cities have San Antonio’s trend.
Even now in her golden years, San Miguel Ortiz continues to push for more changes. She is currently working with the University Interscholastic League (UIL) to bring Mariachi into their ranks sometime within the next year.
This summer, a textbook dedicated to teaching mariachi music is expected to hit the shelves. Considered the first official reference book for mariachi educators to use when hosting classes. That seminal, educational piece was written by San Miguel herself.
“I just keep at it,” she said.
Continuing a Legacy
It’s a new generation for mariachi education. Many of those that were taught by San Miguel herself are now continuing the legacy by teaching their own classes.
Brackenridge’s Nieto is a product of the program: an original student of San Miguel’s, and graduate of Lanier.
“I have no intention of stopping anytime soon,” San Miguel said.
According to Jose Hernandez, director of Los Angeles based group Mariachi Sol de Mexico, and founder of the Mariachi Heritage Foundation —a nonprofit promoting mariachi education to America— mariachi class can be directly linked to increased graduation rates.
“We began a mariachi program in a Tennessee school, where the Latino graduation rate was at 42 percent,” Hernandez said. “After three years, that rate increased to 92 percent. It’s because the students wanted to play. They felt connected and had a want to succeed.”
*Featured/top image: Mariachi Corazón de San Antonio serenades “The Saga” artist Xavier de Richemont for his birthday on opening night of the art installation in Main Plaza. Photo by Iris Dimmick.