You are here

District Profile

Mariachi Magic

This district is keeping its large Hispanic student population in school and interested with a defer


This district is keeping its large Hispanic student population in school and interested with a different type of music program

When Jose Salinas' eighth-grade band students play, they stand but do not march. You will never hear "Pomp and Circumstance" from them.

Instead the guitarrone players will pluck out a strong bass line, and the trumpets, violins and guitars will work through the unmistakable melody of "La Bamba."

What do you do when your primarily Hispanic student body shuns band?

Mariachi is the solution in Chula Vista's Sweetwater Union High School District, the largest secondary school district in California and maybe more importantly, the district closest to the border of Mexico.

"Someone drew a line in the sand, with band on one side, and mariachi on the other. That was like the Alamo to me. That line will not be here while I am here [as director]. Music is music is music. Mariachi is not a program of the district: it is a music program that happens to have a lot of people participating," says Bill Virchis, who oversees the visual and performing arts at Sweetwater.

In Sweetwater, Hispanics comprise two-thirds of the 37,000 students. Five years ago the dropout rate was 4.8 percent, the mariachi band was just an after-school district-wide club, and Hispanics were practically nonexistent in the band program.

Now, the dropout rate is 1.6 percent, there are 10 mariachi clubs with more than 500 students involved. More than one of every 10 children in the district now participate in some type of band.

Superintendent of Schools Edward Brand says the district looks for any and all hooks to keep kids in school. Band was a glaring hole in programming for this population.

Mariachi is "just one of a gazillion other things we have going to engage kids," Brand notes.

The programs are working. In addition to whittling down the dropout rate, overall attendance is up from 93.6 percent in 1997-98 to 97.3 percent in 2001-02, according to district figures.

As with any good visual and performing arts program, mariachi is a way to encourage students to stay in school. Students understand that just like with sports, they have to maintain a 2.0 grade point average to participate.

Once the students become performers, they get immediate reinforcement of their learning the same way athletes get reinforcement. Simple applause from a performance may be all that is needed to change a life.

And any kind of music is good for kids, says Jim Nichols, a long-time music teacher in the district and one of the founders of Agua Dulce, the after-school mariachi group. Music teaches kids to work hard for goals and how to get along with a group, he says.

When many non-Hispanic people think of mariachi, they think of it as nothing more than a distraction at a Mexican restaurant. Mariachi (pronounced mah-ree-AH-chi) is actually a rich, colorful, cultural phenomenon that has strong roots in the revolution for Mexican independence. The "charro" costume-the distinctive short jacket, tight pants, western boots and sombrero-hearkens back to a Wild-West style bandit or a singing cowboy. The songs performed appeal to the romantic souls of teenagers: stories of heroes and villains, songs about passion, familial pride, love and protest. They're also mostly dance tunes, toe-tapping, hand-clapping, hip-swinging irresistible dance tunes.

The idea of macho Hispanic boys willing to wear a mariachi costume is almost unthinkable, but Salinas says when the kids put on these costumes they stand tall and smile. If you look at the pictures of them at their performances, they radiate confidence and pride, both from the way they hold themselves in their costumes and from the obvious pleasure in their own accomplishments.

Virchis agrees that despite the stereotype of the Latino bad boy, the kids show their enthusiasm in various ways. For some kids, the guitar is cool, and once you can play and read music, you can play any style you like. For some girls, playing the guitarrone-the big-bellied bass guitar-is a way to be seen as strong. For all the kids, the costume is a historical link and a way to set themselves apart.

"What happens is the kid gets up there in the charro outfit and he's tied into this Wild West cowboy, Mexican warrior history," Virchis says. Mariachi is always performed standing; the kids stand tall, sing with strength and play with passion.

The kids get hooked on mariachi. Students who begin the program in middle school usually continue it through high school, Virchis says.

Virchis credits many factors for the success of the mariachi program, not the least of which is cultural. Mariachi plugs right into a strong thread of cultural pride that runs through the Hispanic community there, providing kids with a connection to their roots, their homeland and their identity.

Virchis is himself a graduate of Chula Vista High School, and he feels strongly that the community should support and nurture this music program that ties kids into their families and their cultural past.

The community has certainly embraced the new band. It supports a wide number of mariachi performances from the district's 10 groups. The groups are so popular they land paying jobs. This work functions as the band's booster club, neatly circumventing parental fund-raising. Groups raise between $4,000 and $10,000 annually.

Virchis says he sees the kids gaining self-confidence as they perform. "This is not baby steps here, this is leaps," he says. Since high school is about growing up, there is no better time to learn that self-esteem comes from hard work; failure and success and the rewards of practice are life lessons that are taught over and over in music, he adds.

The district's board of education has apparently long seen the value of a strong music program. The district walls are adorned with traditional band and choir group photos taken in exotic locations and in performances, so taking the next step of funding an additional band that would appeal to its student body was relatively easy, Brand says.

The entire program, including instruments and the eight instructor's salaries, costs slightly more than $500,000. Brand says the mariachi success can pay for itself if it boosts attendance. The district receives more money if more students attend, according to California's average daily attendance formula.

Because the district funds the program, almost no student has to buy an instrument. The district has spent nearly $2 million in guitars, violins, trumpets and guitarrones. This ensures that any student who has an interest in music can take the classes. "That is 'No Child Left Behind,' " says Virchis.

Because the instruction in mariachi is complete, most students don't need expensive private lessons. In a community with a majority of low-income residents, this helps build a strong program.

As for getting teachers for mariachi, the district pushes to recruit real musicians. Salinas himself has been a musician for 40 years. He plays mariachi personally, manages a women's mariachi group, and teaches the seventh and eighth graders at Montgomery Middle School in Chula Vista.

Connie Rueles, an eighth grader in Salinas' class at Montgomery Middle School, already knows that she doesn't want to play in a mariachi band when she graduates. "I want to go to UCLA and become a doctor," she says with confidence. She likes mariachi music better than classical, but it is the violin she loves most. With the kind of smile that most kids would reserve for news of a new bike, she confides that her father has promised her that soon she will be the proud owner of her own violin.

Elizabeth Crane,, is a freelance writer based in San Francisco.