Mariachi Magic: This District Is Keeping Its Large Hispanic Student Population in School and Interested with a Different Type of Music Program. (District Profile)

By Crane, Elizabeth | District Administration, October 2002 | Go to article overview

Mariachi Magic: This District Is Keeping Its Large Hispanic Student Population in School and Interested with a Different Type of Music Program. (District Profile)


Crane, Elizabeth, District Administration


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. …

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