Artículos de Mariachi

Mariachi, Bordering On the Mainstream

By Karin Brulliard

SAN ANTONIO -- Anastasia Wilkins calls herself a "typical teenager." Her
bedroom, its walls painted in pink and white stripes, is strewn with clothes.
She runs on her high school's track team and wears a retainer. When she
listens to music, it is likely to be oldies or country and western.

For nearly a decade, though, the bright-eyed 17-year-old has directed her
passion toward singing and playing violin and vihuela -- a small five-string
guitar -- in school mariachi ensembles. Last November, on an evening she said
she hoped would never end, her dedication to mariachi paid off: At the largest
national competition for school mariachi ensembles and singers, members of
Mariachi Vargas, Mexico's preeminent mariachi group, crowned Wilkins best
vocalist in the United States for her throaty performance of a song called "No
Puedo Olvidarte," or "I Cannot Forget You."

"I know that I'm singing correctly when I see people cry," said Wilkins, a
second-generation Mexican American whose Spanish is so patchy that her Spanish
teacher translates song lyrics for her.

In the Southwest, mariachi school programs have exploded over the past 30
years, and they are popping up in other parts of the nation. And nowhere has
the mariachi arts craze caught on more than in South Texas, and especially
San Antonio, where more than 40 percent of the population is of Mexican
origin. At least 50 schools in San Antonio and 250 others in Texas offer
mariachi programs, said Cynthia Muñoz, a public relations executive whose firm
organizes the Mariachi Vargas Extravaganza.

Mariachi is so big in Texas that from San Antonio south to the border,
schools with mariachi ensembles outnumber those with jazz bands, music
educators say. Drawn to mariachi for its festive rhythms and melodic songs
about homeland, liquor and love, the students learn music theory and can
become accomplished singers and instrumentalists.

"I hate the word 'mariachi' " used to describe the players, said David
Zamarripa, mariachi instructor at downtown San Antonio's Fox Tech High
School. "I want them to be 'musicians.' "

Most mariachi students are Mexican Americans or other Hispanics, although
mariachi educators say the music attracts students of all kinds. Some think
mariachi may be on the verge of a breakthrough to the mainstream, much as jazz
once transcended its southern black roots to seize the imagination of the
nation.

For now, students and directors say, mariachi connects many Mexican American
and other Hispanic students to a heritage, and even a language, that is often
only dimly familiar.

The other afternoon, a few members of Fox Tech's mariachi ensemble took a
break after practicing for an upcoming competition in the South Texas town of
Alice. The ensemble -- eight violin players, three trumpet players, one
guitar, two vihuelas and one oversize bass guitar called a guitarrón --
practices during one class period and for an hour each day after school.

"I didn't expect to be able to learn or hear mariachi here," said violin
player Marcelino Castillo, 18, who immigrated to Texas from Mexico nine years
ago and began learning mariachi as a sixth-grader in San Antonio. The senior
also plays in a professional ensemble that performs in a local Mexican
restaurant on weekends. "It makes me keep in touch with my roots," he said.

Another violinist, Desarae Rodriguez, shrugged when asked about her
ancestry. "I don't know what I'm reading all the time," Rodriguez, 17, said of
the lyrics. "But I grew to love it."

Other students take up mariachi for its timeless song topics and trajes de
charro -- the flamboyant mariachi uniforms, with their short embroidered
jackets, wide-brimmed hats and flashy neck scarves -- which lend cachet to the
music, students say, and allow them to skirt the "band nerd" label.

"The music is so cool," said Jeff Nevin, a music professor and mariachi
instructor at Southwestern College in Chula Vista, Calif. "Your image of a kid
getting on the bus and carrying a violin case and getting teased -- it isn't
really true if he's got a mariachi suit."

Teaching mariachi in schools is a purely American concept. South of the
border, mariachi is rooted in folk music of rural western Mexico and passed
from generation to generation, its notes and lyrics rarely written down or
studied formally.

San Antonio's mariachi mania began in the 1960s, boosted by a handful of
Catholic churches that began showcasing mariachi ensembles during Mass, and
early Spanish-language radio stations. A decade later, San Antonio's school
district started one of the nation's first school mariachi programs.

Several Texas colleges and universities, among them the University of Texas-
Pan American in Laredo and the University of Texas at Austin, now lure high
school mariachi players with courses, ensembles and scholarships. At Texas
State University in San Marcos, north of San Antonio, administrators are
designing what they say will be the nation's first four-year music education
degree with a certification in mariachi.

Wilkins, who won a $1,500 scholarship and a day at a spa for her November
victory, is planning to attend Texas State for its elementary education
program and its mariachi group.

"I don't want to stop," she said.

There are a few obstacles to mainstream mariachi. For one, public school
music funds are often meager. At Fox Tech High, which offers six mariachi
classes but no jazz band or orchestra, the $1,500 mariachi budget has not
grown in four years, even as enrollment in mariachi courses has doubled, to
nearly 100 students. To save money, Zamarripa, the mariachi instructor,
borrows instruments from other schools and writes song scores himself, he said.

But mariachi's reputation as cheesy cantina music may be its chief barrier
to the mainstream. Despite mariachi's firm foothold in Texas schools and the
growth of regional contests, there is no mariachi category in major statewide
music competitions. Those are reserved for jazz bands, orchestras, concert
bands and choirs.

"Instead of looking at mariachi as a Mexican ensemble that plays at
restaurants, people should step back a little bit and look at mariachi as a
music ensemble," said John Lopez, director of multicultural music programs at
Texas State University.

Wilkins said she thinks mariachi deserves more respect, but she's not sure
regulated competition is the answer.

"Then you wouldn't have as much freedom," she said. "And that's what's fun
about mariachi."

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