The Beauty of our Local Mariachi Program
On Cinco de Mayo, our school district hosted a Mariachi concert. It was a packed-house free show for the community. The local mariachi teacher is the newly-crowned Washington State Music Teacher of the Year. The first portion of the show was the presenting of the award as well as some scholarship to mariachi students. At the first, I was a bit miffed at what I first saw as the teacher’s self-promotion. But throughout the presentations, the teacher kept repeating a phrase: “Don’t let anyone tell you your band isn’t good enough.” There were variations on this theme. For instance, a former student of his who is now a doctor sent in a video congratulating and thanking Mr. Rivera. ‘See, you can go from playing mariachi to being a doctor,’ Mr. Rivera said.
Several things were happening under the surface that I did not originally pick up. First was the explicit message that the students in his program were good enough to do anything they wanted in life. It was Mr. Rogers in a Sombrero. He was also challenging these students to raise their own standards. Many of these students are kids of migrant workers. And maybe they think picking food is their only choice. Mr. Rivera challenges them to dream.
Secondly, there was a message to the next level of onlookers: parents, teachers, elected officials and community leaders in the audience…these kids, these brown kids, many from poor families have potential. And our community harms itself by selling these kids short. By investing well in students, you invest well in the future of your community. This is like when Mr. Rogers appeared before Congress to advocate funding for Public Television. The audience was different, but the focus remained on the kids. The conversation merely went deeper to root matters of support. Clearly, Mr. Rivera has a vision for the program.
A year ago, I heard Mr. Rivera speak to my local Leadership group. This was before my daughter was in the mariachi program. He was addressing a well-informed and civic minded group of local leaders. He volunteered some insight into the program’s ethos. He highlighted that there were many non-Hispanic people in the mariachi program. He said “Mariachi is for everyone. Mariachi is Mexican but it is for everyone.” That has struck me a wise way to do multi- and cross-cultural development. Having watched the program for two years now, I have seen the program help Mexican and non-Mexican students alike find their voice, develop their creativity and learn how to excel.
This past year, I have seen the program from the perspective of a participant. My daughter entered the middle school mariachi program and is learning the vihuela. While she is growing physically, she is also growing in confidence. As the only vihuela player, she has also had to identify and offer her unique contribution to the program. Her teacher Ms. Brannman, a white lady, has taken on the spirit of Mr. Rivera. Ms. Brannman was already a gifted teacher and musician. The mariachi program has given her another avenue to share her gifts with another set of students. I have seen her work with the other middle school bands and know that crossing genres is a gift of hers. Helping kids of all backgrounds appreciate and celebrate mariachi sets a beautiful example of what it means to be a citizen of the world. For those of us striving to love our neighbors as ourselves, Ms. Brannman and Mr. Rivera are teaching us how to do that at another level.
I had another visceral response during the mariachi concert. I began to do a very typically white thing: grieve over having very little cultural expression. I then did the thing that I usually do next: say to myself “but I do have Appalachia.” But do I have Appalachia? I have the time spent. I have the accent and the diction (buried quite deep at this point, to be honest). And I know I carry a lot of the ethos around. I prefer being independent. And I activate a particular aspect of my cultural heritage when I stay connected to things of a familial nature: family and church.
Sitting in that theater, I did feel a pull to re-invest in my cultural expressions. Ironically, I have asked Amazon to send me books of Appalachian music. I don’t assume my culture will value or see things the way I am seeing them these days. But investing in one’s roots is an investment in one’s self-understanding. It need not equal an endorsement of these cultural values. Yet, I would be remiss to close my mind on lessons my cultural fore-bearers have to teach. It’s okay for me to have departed. In fact it was necessary. But I understand self-differentiation enough to know that maintaining a connection to my culture is to maintain a connection to a place inside of myself that is integral to who I am. As truth has a way of teaching lessons we need to learn, I have a sense of wonder as await the Amazon truck with my song book. What have I overlooked? What did I think was unique to me but was really a seed planted by my ancestors? And What lessons can still help me navigate this world as a free man with his heart and mind still open? What lessons from y culture can I reclaim to help the world? I can’t say with full understanding that Appalachia is for everyone, the way mariachi may be. But it is for me. And my guitar is tuned and ready to go. For this, I have mariachi to thank.