Second- through eighth-grade students in a small Arizona school district located just miles from the Mexican border are broadening their horizons and building skills like teamwork, responsibility and determination by learning to play and perform traditional mariachi music as part of the district’s expansive music curriculum.
The mariachi program in the 5,200-student Gadsden Elementary School District in San Luis, Ariz., started 12 years ago with the encouragement of Superintendent Dr. Raymond Aguilera, financial support from community members and local business, and a dozen students. Participation has grown steadily over the years, said David Castro, director of Mariachi Flor del Desierto and music teacher at Ed Pastor Elementary School, one of eight schools in the district.
“The mariachi style is a very demanding one for the kids,” Castro said. “They have to develop specific techniques, style and their reading ability to perform this type of music. It’s not easy.”
He said the character skills student develop through the mariachi program can be applied immediately in the classroom, as well as later in life in their career and in their home.
Recent studies have found that playing an instrument is especially beneficial to students, because the precise fine motor skills required stimulate multiple areas of the brain which can help in problem solving, Castro said.
“I like being in mariachi, because I enjoy playing guitar and guitarron,” said Javier Benavidez, a sixth-grader in Mariachi Flor del Desierto. “Music relaxes me. This helps my brain.”
About 500 public schools nationwide include mariachi in their music curriculum, according to Daniel Sheehy, a mariachi expert and director of folkways at the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage in Washington, D.C.
This vibrant folk music that originated in Mexico has increased in popularity over the past 10 years, with mariachi classes offered at colleges across the Southwest including University of Arizona, and the Arizona Opera opening its season in October with the world’s first mariachi opera, “Cruzar la Cara de la Luna,” featuring Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlán.
“We’ve participated in many community events in Yuma County and had the opportunity to travel to Phoenix to perform at different educational conferences,” Castro said. “We have also held a mariachi concert for the past three years as a way to give back to the community who has given us their support.”
Castro, Luis Villegas, a music teacher at San Luis Middle School, and Leobardo Neblina, a music teacher at Desert View Elementary, worked together for many years teaching middle- and high school-students mariachi in this Yuma County community.
“Then I saw the need for preparing younger students,” Castro said. “Six years ago, I started working with second-, third- and fourth-grade students teaching them the mariachi instruments, which are the violin, trumpet, guitar and singing.”
Now, second- through sixth-grade students in the district take part in Mariachi Flor del Desierto, while the district’s seventh-grade and eighth-graders join high school and college-age students to perform with Mariachi Gadsden.
Last week, Castro met with parents of students who are new to Mariachi Flor del Desierto to let them know the group will perform at San Luis’ Founders Day Parade, Western Arizona College’s Family Night Concert and learn from professionals at the Tucson International Mariachi Conference.
“We are keeping alive the mariachi tradition in our schools and also restoring it to the heritage of our Arizona Hispanic community,” Castro said.
When the mariachi program began, Riedel Construction Company in San Luis donated money to help buy the first set of instruments and the school district provided the rest, Castro said.
“We have the support of the community, parents and my colleagues within the district,” Castro said.
Since then, Mariachi Flor del Desierto has raised money through performances and now their compact disk recording, “Nuestra Musica,” to pay for registrations for workshops, attending the Tucson International Mariachi conference and the performers’ authentic charro performance outfits that cost at least $300 each, Castro said.
“I’m very excited for the students. I see the expression on their faces when they hear it (the CD),” Castro said. “It’s very different when they hear it at a live performance than when they hear it more detailed with sound effects and everything. It’s enhanced. They love it.”
For more information about the students’ recording, contact Castro at (928) 726-1564 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
“Last month we had an opportunity to travel with Gadsden Mariachi – the older group of students – to Guadalajara, Mexico, for the Encuentro Internacional del Mariachi which is a convention where you can see and participate with other mariachi groups from South America such as Peru, Chile, Columbia and Cuba,” Castro said.
While in Guadalajara, students had the opportunity to get to know and perform with a student mariachi group from Indio, Calif., and learned a lot from Mariachi Mixteco from Imperial Valley, Calif., Castro said.
In April, students will learn from professional mariachi groups at the Tucson International Mariachi Conference, which they have been attending for years, Castro said.
Students have taken part in many workshops at that conference including some with Mariachi Los Camperos de Nati Cano, under the musical direction of Jesús Guzmán. Guzmán is a lecturer in the ethnomusicology department at the University of California Los Angeles’ Herb Alpert School of Music.
The superintendent has been supportive of all music programs, including marching band, orchestra and jazz band, Castro said.
“The marching band went to London last year. In 2016, they are going to Spain,” Castro said.
In addition, an elementary-level orchestra is starting.
“Students from mariachi are participating at the intermediate level in the string orchestra, and I also have 40 beginning students learning cello, viola and violin,” Castro said.
“We, as music teachers, couldn’t be in a better place because of the support we get from the district. That’s very noticeable,” Castro said.
Mariachi Flor del Desierto plays La Palma
Mariachi Flor del Desierto performs El Mariachi Loco