Guest Blogger Tina Aguilar teaches Humanities and Cultural Studies at Brookhaven College School of the Arts.
Dallas Independent School District boasts a range of programs and neighborhood initiatives with community helpers. Alfonso González, Spanish teacher and Mariachi Director at W.T. White High School, and Guadalupe Vargas, Orchestra Director and Mariachi Director at W. E. Greiner Middle School Exploratory Arts Academy, both bring a passion of the legacy of mariachi rhythms and the power of music to their students.
In keeping with the Cinco De Mayo flavor, both Mariachi Los Unicos de Greiner Middle School and W. T. White High School Mariachi Band performed Wednesday night at the House of Blues. They were joined by Mariachi Juvenil Jaguar and Mo-Set AllStarz of Molina High School and Anita N. Martinez Ballet Folklorico before the Gipsy Kings concert. This is another cultural collaboration between the International House of Blues Foundation (IHOBF) and DISD. The proceeds from this event will benefit the IHOBF Action for the Arts Initiative and support new and existing mariachi programs in select Dallas high schools that have a high demand for mariachi. Schools in need of instruments will also benefit.
Tina Aguilar: You have been doing this a long time and continue to create cultural histories and memories. What is the heritage of your work and your program?
Alfonso González: My mariachi experience originates from Stockard Middle School and Sunset High School under the direction of Federico Cisneros. I started teaching mariachi at Moisés E. Molina High School in 2000, and the Mariachi band I started there lasted about five years. Then I transferred to W. T. White High School and it took some time to get going, but I had strong support from my principal and our community liaison with DISD. We started the program in the middle of the year in 2006. This is our third full year, and we have great support. My teaching area is Spanish, and I have two mariachi classes. Our program offers students beginner, intermediate and advanced classes. This year, I have taught harmony through guitars, vihuelas and guitarróns. Last year, I taught trumpet, and I am lucky to have peer tutors who help our group.
Guadalupe Vargas: When I was in fifth grade, I started playing the violin. And then when I got to high school, I had a taste of mariachi at Molina High School and Mr. González was my director. My classical training was enhanced by the mariachi experience. There are 30 kids in my current mariachi group, and we have about 16 for the House of Blues performance, because their stage isn’t big enough to support the full group. Most range from 11 years of age to 13. We are called Mariachi Los Unicos, because we started last February as the first middle school group in the district. Last month, we won the Best in Class award at the annual Mariachi Extravaganza in Fort Worth. We were up against Grand Prairie, Fort Worth and San Antonio performers.
T.A.: While many folks might think mariachi music means weddings and family celebrations, this week is significant for our Mexican heritage. What are some key songs that you play and that students enjoy for the Cinco De Mayo celebration, and what was it like for your students to be asked to perform at the House of Blues Cinco De Mayo event?
A.G.: Our program for the House of Blues Cinco De Mayo event includes: “El Son de la Negra,” a traditional son de Jalisco; a few José Alfredo Jiménez pieces – “Hermoso Carino” and “Si Nos Dejan;” then some Cumbia – “Como Te Voy a Olvidar” (Los Angeles Azules); and a Mariachi Loco Chente set with “Las Llaves de mi Alma, Estos Celos” and “Por Tu Maldito Amor.” The students perform about 20 events throughout the year, and some of them know of the House of Blues, but others do not. Opportunities like this help strengthen their performance skills.
G.V.: Sure, some of the traditional mariachi standards include “Los Machetes,” or “La Bamba de Veracruz,” and, in addition to these, we will do Michael Jackson’s “Beat It.” Some of my students’ parents have enjoyed musicians at the House of Blues, and many are excited to be able to perform in a professional venue. The ones who do not know about it will have another place to add to their performance list. We were thrilled to be asked to participate.
T.A.: Tell me about your teaching philosophy.
A.G.: My big emphasis is that I really think the mariachi band, like any extra-curricular activity, is a vehicle to teach students responsibility. When they don’t practice, it affects the whole group. We put an emphasis on grades, and the principal and I make sure the students meet their academic commitments or they don’t play. The effect of music programs and the level of commitment required means students have to practice on their own time – in addition to what we ask of them in class. This prepares them for life in general, current and future relationships, jobs and, directly, how to succeed in life. The significant part is to try and have something fun to do at school, and it pushes them to do more and to do better.
G.V.: I teach two mariachi classes during the week, with about 10 per group. And then I have a Wednesday afternoon group that includes all 30. This means I get all levels, and the Academy nourishes current students and neighborhood children who want to learn music. This means I can work with those who are learning their instruments and those that are more advanced. I have kids for about three years, and it does make a difference to see them work together. We need more instruments, and I have a friend who can help with repairs. I still keep in touch with the individuals who helped me when I was part of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra Young Strings Program in 8th grade. DISD gave me a lotm and I am trying to give back.