Clark County Schools Mariachi Program Growth Strengthens Latino Community

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A soft but rhythmic “one, back, very” brings music to life in a Las Vegas high school classroom decorated with illuminated posters and colorful photos of student musicians.

Members of Las Vegas Mariachi Joya High School the ensemble begins to play their violins, trumpets, guitars – including the guitarrón and the vihuela, respectively larger and smaller than the guitar – and harp to the tune of a classic folk song called Cielito Lindo.

Ay ay ayay, canta y no llores, ” the students sing in Spanish, some swinging with their instruments in their hands. The refrain, translated into English, means “sing and do not cry”.

It’s a Tuesday afternoon rehearsal, one of many that take place in the Clark County School District throughout the year. The group goes through their entire show, all the songs are memorized and repeat the sections as needed, in preparation for the next performance.

The district runs what officials say is the largest mariachi program in the country, exposing thousands of students to a traditional part of Hispanic culture. The program has grown steadily since its launch in 2002 with 250 students from four schools. Today, approximately 6,000 middle and high school students participate in an elective mariachi course offered at 27 schools.

Mariachi, a genre of Mexican folk music originating in a region of western Mexico, is the result of the mixture of indigenous and foreign cultural and musical elements, according to the Smithsonian Institution. Over the centuries and with the help of media, such as radio and film, mariachi has become popular and has refined its sound and outlook on what we know today.

“[Having culturally diverse programs] is critical to our success, ”said Jeff Williams, high school fine arts coordinator in the school district. “We need to support programs that reflect our community and maintain the interest of our students, and that really honors the culture from which our district thrives. “

About 47% of students in the district identify as Hispanic or Latino, making it the largest racial or ethnic group of students. Any student can join the mariachi program, although many are Hispanic or Latino.

The Las Vegas High School Mariachi Program is one of the newer ones. It was launched in 2018, serving a school where nearly three quarters of students are Hispanic. Today, 250 students from all grade levels participate in the optional mariachi class. Students must audition for Mariachi Joya, the best ensemble group representing the school.

“Mariachi is the music of the people. It’s something that I think is very, very special for a lot of these families, ”said Stephen Blanco, director of the mariachi program at Las Vegas High School. “And even those who didn’t grow up in a Hispanic home, even those whose parents don’t speak Spanish. It’s still their music because that’s what they do with it. “

For Blanco, a native of Detroit, the work marked a return to family roots. Her father grew up and graduated from high school in Las Vegas.

“Joya filled a void that I didn’t know I had in my life,” he said. “I didn’t know if I wanted to get a group director position or if I wanted to go back to school, but when I got the call it made sense. It was good. It’s 2,000 miles from my home, but it was kind of like coming home which was never my home but I feel like it.

Despite the short duration of the program at school, the group took care of virtual and in-person performances in Las Vegas and across the country, representing the city and its diverse culture.

The students, who wear red suits called trajes covered with silver embroidery and white neck knots with the letters “LV”, played virtually for the inauguration of President Joe Biden and registered an album during full-time distance learning. Most recently, they participated in a local Mexican Independence Day celebration, traveled to Washington, DC, play for the Mexican embassy in honor of Hispanic Heritage Month and were presented at the National Conference on Immigrant Integration last week in Las Vegas. This is in addition to school events, such as the Homecoming assembly and sports games.

Busy as they are, Blanco said he demands high standards from his players in their schoolwork and constantly contacts them and their teachers. At least half of the seniors in his mariachi classes are close to graduating with honors, he added.

Blanco reminds students of “Be a joya”, the latter being the Spanish word for “jewel”.

“We talk a lot about being a joy, shine brightly, be strong, set an example for others, ”he said. “You can’t have bad grades. You can’t skip classes every now and then, like other students do.

Louie Saldate, a young violinist, entered high school excited that mariachi was an option, inspired to try it out after growing up listening to Mexican classics at home. Not having participated in the orchestra or the marching band in college, he was a little shy at first. But after being in mariachi class for the past few years and joining Mariachi Joya, Saldate said that now is his life and he sang and performed with passion and pride.

“Mariachi is your main focus besides school – school first, then Joya,” Saldate said with a smile. “My favorite part is definitely the audience. The audience can make or break your performance… When everyone is having fun it’s hard to mess up or if you mess up then you laugh and keep going.

Daniellee Ureña performs with the Las Vegas High School Mariachi Band at the National Immigrant Integration Conference at the Westgate Resort and Casino in Las Vegas on Tuesday, October 5, 2021 (Daniel Clark / The Nevada Independent)

Daniellee Ureña echoed this sentiment, despite entering the mariachi world at the end of her high school career. She is senior and has just started this year. Ureña has followed in the footsteps of her older siblings, playing the trumpet in a band, but she is the first in her family to join the mariachi ensemble.

“The performance is what kept me in any group. I love playing. I love the rush of it. I love adrenaline. I love being with the band, ”said Ureña, her shiny silver glasses. “There is so much energy. There is always so much love for everyone.

Ureña couldn’t fit the mariachi class into her schedule, so she attends after school rehearsals and trains in her spare time. The dedication impresses his mother, Maria Millan.

“She divides her time with marching band practices, rehearsals, performances with the mariachi, schoolwork – she likes to triple the time,” said Millan. “She’s really good at what she does and we’re very proud of her. Every time we go to see her, we feel honored and proud that she is our little one.

The Mariachi class brings a culture and heritage that not only can students appreciate, participate in, and identify with, Blanco said the performances also help unify the community.

“A while ago, a few weeks ago, nobody was going to leave after we were done playing. Everyone stayed – the whole audience, ”Blanco said. “That’s when I realized ‘That’s who it is for, a community is starting to be made. Ultimately.'”


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