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'Mariachi Is the Reason Why They Get Up in the Morning and Go to School'

By Jackie Serrato | February 15, 2016 5:25am
 Chicago Public Schools students involved in mariachi education perform at Harris Theater.
Chicago Public Schools students involved in mariachi education perform at Harris Theater.
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Mariachi Heritage Foundation

LITTLE VILLAGE — A program that brought mariachi classes to Chicago Public Schools has gotten so popular a citywide ensemble has been formed, organizers said.

Two years ago, CPS introduced mariachi as an elective class taught by music teachers in seven schools: Joseph E. Gary Elementary in Little Village; Richard Edwards Elementary and UNO Soccer Academy in Archer Heights; Edward N. Hurley Fine and Performing Arts Magnet Cluster in West Lawn; Davis Elementary and Calmeca Academy of Fine Arts and Dual Language in Brighton Park; and John L. Marsh Elementary in Calumet Heights.

The class attracted 1,700 kids and was in such high demand among Mexican-American students, said Cesar Maldonado, president of the Mariachi Heritage Foundation that funds the program, that it was necessary to expand it to nurture advanced learners.

“Honestly, we have kids in the program who aren’t into school and mariachi is the reason why they get up in the morning and go to school. Then we have kids who have excelled academically because of mariachi,” he said.

The 32-year-old investment banker measures the program’s success based on student achievement and parent engagement. He said that when he was growing up in Brighton Park, his Durango, Mexico-born parents felt intimidated to get involved in his schooling. With the mariachi class, each of the seven schools has formed a mariachi parent committee.

“The class attracts a lot of parents on report card pick-up day, with lines of parents out the door eager to talk to their kids’ teachers,” he said. Immigrant parents are especially attuned to the culturally relevant elective.

Currently, there are All-City ensembles for orchestra, choir, band, jazz and other music art forms, but not for mariachi.

When the All-City Mariachi Ensemble launches this year, supported by the mariachi foundation and the Chicago Community Trust, it will welcome performers in grades 3 through 12. Musicians will meet for two hours every Saturday at Jones College Prep in the South Loop or Back of the Yards College Prep under the direction of Mariachi Cobre’s Roberto Martinez.

They will follow a performing arts calendar that will allow them to put on high-profile concerts throughout the year in downtown venues like the Auditorium Theater, Symphony Center, Harris Theater and Millennium Park, as well as student showcases in other CPS schools.

Applicants must have a background in any of the mariachi instruments, like guitarrón, vihuela or trumpet. Interested students should submit an application by Feb. 19 and audition on Feb. 27 at the National Museum of Mexican Arts in Pilsen, where the mariachi foundation is based.

“My music of choice is mariachi, it’s what I grew up with, and there’s a huge national movement with mariachi education,” Maldonado said.

The program plans to hold tryouts every year.

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