‘Some songs tell stories’
By Emily McFarlan Miller emcfarlan @stmedianetwork.com February 2, 2013 4:34PM
Mariachi instructor Tristan Broeker guides students in the musical art of mariachi Tuesday at Larsen Middle School in Elgin. November 27, 2012 | Michael Smart~Sun-Times Media
Updated: March 4, 2013 6:02AM
Jasmine Corona didn’t want to join the mariachi band at first.
But her parents thought learning the guitar might help the 14-year-old with the violin, which she already played.
And most of her uncles are mariachis in Mexico. They play a lot of music at funerals because another one of her uncles sells coffins, which, she admitted was pretty funny.
It sounds a little like the lyrics you might hear in the mariachi music she sings — music the eighth-grader at Kimball Middle School in Elgin admits has grown on her over the past year because “some songs tell stories.”
Across town at Larsen Middle School, Jasmine Melo Ignacio agreed. “The songs aren’t like American songs,” said the eighth-grader. “Other songs usually sing about love. In Mexico, they sing about love, but also what happened, about the situation.”
Late last month, both girls named Jasmine sat in rehearsals after class had ended at their schools. The two students are among the first in the middle school mariachi band in Elgin School District U46, the only school mariachi band in the Fox Valley.
While the district may be blazing trails locally, across the country more school districts are adding mariachi programs, from Victoria Independent School District in Victoria, Texas, to Clark County School District in Las Vegas, even Denison Community Schools in Denison, Iowa. And just this fall, PBS aired a national special called “Mariachi High,” following Mariachi Halcon of Zapata High School on the Rio Grande in south Texas from auditions to performances at the San Antonio Mariachi Vargas Extravaganza and the Texas High School State Mariachi Competition.
“Right now it’s targeting Latino students, but I think this will be the next jazz,” said Jaimie Giraldo, band director at Elgin High School and one of two mariachi directors at Larsen. “I think the new wave of music is coming to our schools. Back in the ‘50s, you didn’t teach jazz in schools. It was too informal. It was ‘black’ music. Now, every school has a jazz band, and no one blinks an eye.”
Mariachi is a style of Mexican folk music, as well as the musicians who play it. Those bands usually include trumpets, violins and several types of guitars, including the high-pitched vihuela and a bass guitar called the guitarrón.
The idea to bring mariachi to the majority-Hispanic school district came from U46 Superintendent Jose Torres about four years ago, according to Terri DeDecker, district coordinator of fine arts, elementary physical education and health.
“I had a vision that students would play mariachi music and that our parents would go wild,” Torres said in a written statement to Sun-Times Media. “Music touches the soul. When our parents listen to music that speaks to them played by their children and other people’s children, I think it re-recruits the parents to support the school district and their children.”
It also builds a connection between those students whose parents may have emigrated from Mexico or are descended from Mexican immigrants, according to Kimball mariachi director and U46 Visual and Performing Arts Academy choral director Mark Hutson. All students get a strong music education in guitar, voice and music theory, he said.
The directors at each site trained four years ago, when the idea first was explored, and again over the summer at a weeklong conference for music educators teaching mariachi in Las Vegas. Including airfare, the director said, cost to the district was about $1,000 for each teacher.
Last year, finally, Torres’ vision came to fruition, and, in the spring, the district’s first three mariachi groups performed together at both an end-of-the-year lunch for district administrators and a Cinco de Mayo celebration at Elgin High School. They wore the typical concert attire for the district — white shirts and black pants — but they were topped with the wide, fluffy bow ties mariachis wear, called a moño.
They received two standing ovations, Hutson said. And everyone in the room sang along to the familiar chorus of “Cielito Lindo” — the one that begins, “Ay yi yi yi.” Plus, “Every time we’ve gone outside in the community, it’s been met with such a positive response from the community, as well,” he added. “They just love it.”
The fact his grandpa plays mariachi helped motivate seventh-grader Israel Rodriguez to join the mariachi group at Larsen this year.
Jasmine Melo Ignacio said her dad also likes the music, but growing up, her siblings would change the radio station when he would turn on mariachi. Now, she said, “Only when we go out, just me and my dad, he plays the songs.”
While her father has yet to say much to her about the music, she knows he’s “glad I’m learning more about Mexican culture.”
Jasmine Melo Ignacio especially likes the songs of Vicente Fernandez because he sings “with attitude.” And when she went to Mexico with her family last year, she noticed that “everywhere you go, you hear mariachi music.”
The reactions from her friends have been typically middle school. “The Mexican kids, they laugh, and the American kids they’re, ‘OK, that’s cool,’” she said.
Their group, like those at Kimball and Canton Middle School in Streamwood, has about 10 to 15 members and meets for an hour after school Tuesdays and Thursdays. Those three schools, DeDecker said, have “sizeable” Hispanic and English Language Learner populations. Larsen, in particular, is 69.6 percent Hispanic, according to Illinois Interactive Report Card data.
The district started mariachi at middle school because its other instrumental programs start in fifth grade. That gives the district the opportunity to pick up students who aren’t part of that that traditional programming a few years later.
And many of the middle schools already have extracurricular activities and run activity buses students can take home after rehearsal, DeDecker said.
It also started with almost all guitars that were repurposed after being used is an exploratory program offered years ago. In their second year, students in mariachi will transition into trumpet and violin, like Crystal Perez, 14, of Streamwood, who played the violin before she joined the mariachi group last year at Canton.
Crystal is now a student at Streamwood High School, but she was back earlier this month, her fingers flying over the violin, because the group has become “like a family” to her.
“We all just treat each other with respect,” she said. “We like to play with each other and teach each other new things.”
Moving forward, DeDecker said, U46 wants to make mariachi a curricular offering, like band or orchestra. But its extracurricular band still is the first in the Fox Valley.
Rodney Schueller, director of bands concert ensembles at West Aurora High School, said he’s noted the explosion of interest in mariachi around the country. And Hector Garcia, superintendent of Plano Community Unit District 88, said he was familiar with the mariachi band at Morton East High School in Cicero. Indian Prairie School District 204 pointed to Mosaic, a curricular choir that sings multicultural music at Waubonsee Valley High School in Aurora, when asked about mariachi.
But none of those area districts has discussed bringing mariachi to their schools, though Garcia called it “an interesting thought.”
District U46 couldn’t be happier with the outcome, especially for the students. As coordinator of the program, DeDecker has seen “their self esteem grow in front of my eyes.”
Torres is equally impressed. “I have not been disappointed,” the superintendent said.
“The mariachi band and their instructors have been awesome.”