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Cultural Curriculum is Music to the Ears

  • Ky Plaskon

Mariachi is a style of music native to Mexican Indians that has been adapted for western string instruments. Mexican immigrants brought it to the United States. Now mariachi is an official part of the curriculum at schools in Las Vegas, Nevada, with a large number of Hispanic students. Other school districts nationwide are following the experiment with interest.

At Rancho High, one of the first schools to introduce the program, students emerge from Mariachi Music class in a festive mood. It's nearly impossible to wrench the instruments from their hands, and none of them seem to want to leave. Sixth period mariachi band teacher Gabriel Cadena usually lets the students play as long as they want, but this day is different. He has to move them to the auditorium. The band is going on tour.

"Today's a hectic day," Mr. Cadena explains, "the first time any of us have taken any trip like this, the first time we've taken the Mariachi program out the way this group's about to go, so we have to make sure everything is right, everything is perfect."

The band's next gig is opening the National Conference of the American String Teachers Association in Reno, Nevada -- the first time mariachi music has been featured at the event. In the auditorium Mr. Cadena holds a final rehearsal. With an "Uno, dos, uno…" the band launches into one song, out of the hour's worth of repertoire they're planning to perform.

Juan Sanjuan is the front man for the band. He plays the guitaron - a giant guitar. As he runs through a finger exercise on the instrument, he says he likes the Mariachi program. "It is not boring like all the other classes. We only have 3 or 4 written assignments."

There is a formal curriculum for the Mariachi music program. School districts in Arizona, Texas, and California have part-time and after school Mariachi programs. But according to the American String Teachers Association, Clark County, where Las Vegas is located, is the only school district in the nation with a full-time program, taught by accredited teachers.

Mariachi Program facilitator Javier Trujillo, who developed it, says the curriculum incorporates academic skills along with the music. "In terms of writing, many of the teachers assign essays for the students: write an essay on this composer, do some research, get on the Internet and write a quick biography of this composer," he says. "We are trying to bring into the music classroom many of the skills that they are learning in other classes." The Clark County School District Mariachi Program has grown to more than 10 schools over the past 3 years, serving 1,200 students. Many of them are children of Mexican immigrants. Next year Mr. Trujillo hopes to expand even more - doubling the staff involved in the program.

At Rancho High, where 66% of the students are Hispanic, principal Robert Chesto says his school had no choice but to start reflecting the culture and language of this growing percentage of the student body. "We watched our theater program continue to diminish," he recalls, "so we had a request to have Spanish theater. This year we will produce our first Spanish-speaking play and it will be West Side Story, and so we have hundreds of kids applying for a few positions. It's something we have never done in this community before."

The principal says the cultural programs have had surprising - and positive - effect. Students involved in the Mariachi classes have significantly improved their overall grade averages. With such success, the school has introduced other programs that cater to the cultural heritage of its students. For the first time this year Rancho High is offering Baile Foclorico classes, teaching traditional Latin American dances. The idea is to eventually partner the Baile Foclorico with the Mariachi band for performances in the school, and beyond.

In the meantime, the mariachi students are taking their new cultural skills home, performing in bands outside of school and playing at church and family functions.

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