Forget the Macarena: Texas High Schools Do the Mariachi

Like many high school teachers, Ezekiel Castro teaches skills his students can use to get a good job after graduation. But you won't find Mr. Castro's students working with computers or fine-tuning machinery. In fact, his students don't work, they play.

Several dozen times a year, Castro's students don elaborate embroidered costumes, pull on their boots and sombreros, and demonstrate their skills for audiences ranging from a few dozen to several thousand. Known as the Mariachi Rebeldes del Sur, Castro's students are one of Austin's most visible mariachi groups.

Castro's program is one of dozens of high school mariachi programs launched over the past few years in high schools across Texas, Arizona, and California. The surge reflects not only the growing popularity of mariachi music, but the growing Hispanic influence in the Southwest.

About 25 percent of Texans are Hispanic, and events celebrated across the border in Mexico, such as the Cinco de Mayo, are also occasions for celebration in towns across the state. At these festivals, and at weddings, baptisms, and Quinceaera's (15th birthdays), mariachi players are in high demand.

After hearing about other school-to-work programs at Travis High School, Castro decided he, too, could offer vocational training. "I wanted my students to know that when they get out of high school, they can get a job because they'll have learned a skill," he says.

His students get many opportunities to perform, playing at more than 50 events last year. The rigorous schedule prepares them for the job market, where a competent player can make up to $300 per day.

Castro acknowledges that his students won't be as accomplished as other, more experienced mariachi players. But his goal is to give them "good basic training." As part of that effort, the veteran music teacher began an apprenticeship program last year.

FOR two weeks, his students rehearse and perform with Mariachi Relmpago, an Austin-based group. "It gives them a chance to see that being a mariachi is a business," Castro explains.

Like any musical training, becoming a mariachi takes time and effort. But unlike orchestra or marching-band musicians, mariachis can't carry music: Every song must be memorized.

Mariachi has its roots in colonial Mexico. A combination of Mexican folk music and African rhythms, it is played by five to 14 or more musicians who rely on five instruments: a guitar, violin, trumpet, guitarrn (a large bass guitar), and vihuela (a small guitar with a curved back).

Anthony Thompson, a graduate of Castro's program, teaches mariachi at Roma High School, just north of the Texas-Mexico border. Mr. Thompson says that over the past eight years, more than a dozen schools in the region have launched mariachi programs. "You aren't considered one of the better school programs in south Texas unless you have mariachis," says Thompson.

Andrew Valdez, a music teacher at Pojoaque High School in Pojoaque, New Mexico, started a mariachi program four years ago. The response, he says, has been overwhelming. His students' group, Mariachi Alce de Pojoaque, recorded a tape that has sold 1,500 copies.

Mr. Valdez says mariachi music provides a way for Mexican-American students to express pride in their culture. It also offers a way to overcome the generation gap, he says.

"Mariachi music is a bridge between the older generation and the young because they share it in common," Valdez says.

For Edwin De Jesus, bridging the generation gap seems to be a low priority. A loquacious sophomore guitarron player in Castro's class, Edwin says mariachi music "makes you hyper. When you hear it, it makes you want to get up and dance."

The young musician hopes to be a professional mariachi someday. But in the meantime, he gets something that all high school students crave: recognition.

"Being a mariachi," Edwin explains, "is cool."

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