EL PASO, Tex. — As the morning sun rises over the mountains, teacher Mike Hernandez prepares to guide his students through their musical paces.
“The kids really, really get excited when they have the suit on,” he said, “and it represents not only the music, but it represents themselves.”
Meet Mariachi Estrella del Oeste, a mariachi ensemble group at Franklin High School in El Paso, Texas.
“El Paso being a border town, mariachi being such a predominant music, you know, our mariachi program sprung up because of the ability that we were able to get more serious about it on an academic level,” Hernandez said.
They are indeed serious about the music, including when they perform one classic mariachi folk song called “Son de la Negra.”
“It's a very significant song because it's the most popular mariachi song,” Hernandez said. “It's the one song that every mariachi knows how to play.”
That includes student CJ Santos, who both plays the violin and sings.
“There are some days where I feel extremely nervous and think that I have to be as perfect as possible,” Santos said. “And then, there are some days where it's like, ‘This is my culture. This is what I want to do.’”
It is a culture many of these students say they have become closer to through mariachi.
“I feel really connected to the culture, to myself,” said student Hazael Shows. “It's something helping a lot - like mentally, physically - like everything. I just love it. So, I like when I'm on that stage, I'm someone else.”
It is a feeling shared by other fellow mariachi ensemble student performers.
“I feel much closer to the culture ever since I joined mariachi,” said Danny Gallardo, “And it's even helped my Spanish! So, it's really neat being able to connect to Mexican culture in that way.”
Not every student playing in the mariachi ensemble is Mexican American.
“I can play one thing, and then as soon as everybody else starts joining in, it just matches beautifully, and I love it,” said Jayden Gantt, who plays an instrument called the Guitarron. “I had a few friends encourage me to join because I used to be a football and I didn't really like it that much. And I really loved music a lot. So, I also wanted to learn my Spanish as well, so what better way to combine music and learning Spanish and mariachi?”
In the past 30 years, mariachi music programs have become increasingly popular in schools, with more than 500 now around the country.
“People who are involved in these high school programs are kind of paving the way for kids to retain this throughout their lives,” teacher Mike Hernandez said. “And it is enriching a lot of kids' lives, as it has mine.”
It is a passion for mariachi, now shared among these students.
“You become one with the group, and it's just this immense energy flowing from you to the audience,” Gallardo said.
The mariachi performances foster a connection between the ensemble and their audience. All in all, it creates a strong finish for these students on their musical journey.
“It's the words, the feeling,” Shows said. “I love how everything just comes together at the end.”