Depending on where you’re from in Texas, mariachi music may be something you encounter only occasionally at a festival or restaurant. Or it may be a part of your everyday life.
In the Rio Grande Valley the long tradition of mariachi music is just as vibrant as it is in Guadalajara – Mexico’s unofficial mariachi capital.
The La Joya High School mariachi band is called Los Coyotes. The group recently celebrated the 35th anniversary of the school’s mariachi music program.
Mariachi director Martin Cantu says mariachi music is Mexican culture at its finest. “We need to demonstrate that our culture means well, our culture has values, our culture has morals. And so we just need to make sure that everyone sees that and not just the Valley kids, but Austin, Chicago, New York, every other big city needs to know that the Mexican culture is something that should be respected like everything else.” he says.
Over the years Los Coyotes has spread that message through shows – including performances for Presidents Bill Clinton and George Bush senior.
For students like 18-year-old senior Jose Salinas being part of the group is a tradition that spans generations. “I used to think my dad was famous. And my uncles and my aunts because you know, who plays for the presidents and the governors and who plays in France with the mariachi as a high school mariachi group? So I was like oh my god they’re like amazing, they’re the best of the best.” he says.
Performing alongside Salinas at the anniversary concert was his cousin, Victoria Garcia. She’s 15 and a little nervous. “I joined because when I was little I always thought my mom was amazing and I wanted to be exactly like my mom and so when my mom started telling me that she was in mariachi in a very young age. I was around 7 years of age and she brought me to one of my first concerts here in the third grade and she said she played the accordion and violin. And as soon as she said she played violin I was like that’s it, that’s my instrument. That’s what I want to learn.” she says.
The mariachi program at La Joya was created in the 1980s to help decrease dropout rates. And it seems to have worked. “I have students now that tell me, sir, if wasn’t for mariachi I would have already dropped out and started working in the pipelines, or scaffolding.” Cantu says.
Cantu himself connected with Los Coyotes as a student. He remembers first trying out the orchestra – but his parents didn’t like it. So he joined the mariachi group instead. “A lot of our students have the same kind of parents I did growing up. They’re always working, they’re machismo, they don’t care for school, they care for graduating their kids from high school and just helping them work. That’s where we live in.” he says.
Because of the connections it makes, the program is not just for the students. It also helps shift parental perspectives and increases involvement with their children. Cantu says that unlike other school programs 80 percent of Los Coyotes parents want to help.
“What do you need Mr. Cantu, do you need us to bring water for the kids who stay after school? Do you need us to bring food? Do you need us to sell tickets, so we can fundraise to take them places? You know, they’re always helping me versus other students that I know who don’t get that support because they’re not in a Mexican activity.” says Cantu.
The Los Coyotes anniversary show was accented with the dances of a folklorico ballet – complex dance routines performed by students in bright colors filled the stage. The crowd loved it and there were multiple standing ovations. For Terry Fischer from Canada, this was her first time attending a mariachi performance. She says she was blown away. “It’s hard to believe that they’re kids, that they’re students from a school, you would think they’re trained professionals.”
And – in a way – they have many more years of experience than their youth reveals. The performers carry 35 years of history on their proud shoulders.