Mariachi: Out of the Bar, Into the Classroom

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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.

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.

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.

A high school mariachi band performs during the 2013 Mariachi Corazón de San Antonio contest in Main Plaza. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

A high school mariachi band performs during the 2013 Mariachi Corazón de San Antonio contest in Main Plaza. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

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

In 1970, mariachi classes were introduced at San Antonio Independent School District’s (SAISD) Lanier High School, located on the Westside, a low income, Hispanic side of town.

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.

(From left) Belle San Miguel Ortiz and Juan Ortiz took time to visit a special friend, Victoriano Flores at Market Square. Photo by Anthony Medrano.

(From left) Belle San Miguel Ortiz and Juan Ortiz visit with local mariachi singer Victoriano Flores at Market Square. Photo by Anthony Medrano.

"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.

Brackenridge High School Mariachi Aguila Director John Nieto leads a mariachi class. Photo by Amanda Lozano.

Brackenridge High School Mariachi Aguila Director John Nieto leads a mariachi class. Photo by Amanda Lozano.

“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.

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24 thoughts on “Mariachi: Out of the Bar, Into the Classroom

  1. One only has to attend a Mariachi Vargas concert to know that they are among the worlds finest musicians

  2. Mariachi was NEVER bar music, it was composed to be played in church, its Mexico’s classical music, you should learn its history before claiming its something that its not.

    • It is remarkable to read the very defensive remarks of some readers who deny that mariachi has found a home in bars and restaurants when it very obviously has done so, following paying customers wherever they might sit and listen. The article’s author, a mariachi musician, knowns better than most where they ply their trade. Any random visitor to the River Walk can listen, whether they like it or not, to mariachi plying the tables of the eateries there. I continue to believe that mariachi is a music form meant for the plaza or zócalo, but musicians, like the rest of us, follow the money. –RR

  3. Great story. However, maybe should’ve shared more info on the Mariachi Vargas Extravaganza Competition and the scholarships given here in San Antonio. Cynthia Munoz, producer of the extravaganza, has been a true leader in promoting education through Mariachi music for over 20 years.

  4. Its a great thing that Ivy league schools offer mariachi courses, shoot they’ve offered history of gangster rap for a while, and its awesome that people all over the world recognize the mariachi sound instantly, and although it has been performed at Palenques, to label it strictly “bar music” if offensive to its rich culture and origin. I was actually more amazed to find mariachis in Japan than at Harvard.

  5. Amanda and Bob, wonderful to see you all point the spotlight on the growing education around a beautiful tradition.

    Just a quick editorial note – I was a member of Mariachi Cardenal at Stanford and cherished my time dearly. We purposefully spell the group “Cardenal” (i.e., no “i”) so it doesn’t sound odd when pronounced in Spanish 🙂

  6. I started playing mariachi music during rondalla classes taught by the late Josephine Orta at Via Maria across from Central Catholic High School. Soon I became a member of the San Jose Mission Choir and eventually the San Antonio Independent School District ‘All-District’ mariachi. For me, and many people in South Texas, mariachi had its roots from churches not bars. This is a huge difference between mariachi music in the U.S. and mariachi music in Mexico. Roy Quintero, Luis Garcia, John Nieto, myself and hundreds of others involved in the mariachi music world in San Antonio started through the church. The title of article could easily have read “from church into the classroom.” That’s how I remember it.

  7. Kudos Amanda for writing the article! Mariachi music is many things to audiences and musicians. It is everything that a person’s individual experience with it has been. I am blessed to have been involved in every possible aspect of mariachi music for 39 years and can say there is no wrong description for mariachi music-good and bad.

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