The Power of Mariachi
SpotlightBy: Sarah Gray
Leticia Jasso Vallejo grew up surrounded by music—from her father singing Tejano oldies to her brother and uncles playing guitar. “I always wanted to be a singer,” Leticia says. After years of being in mariachi during her time at Texas State University and playing professionally in Austin, Leticia made the difficult decision to hit pause as she adjusted to the responsibilities of teaching. In summer 2017, she confessed to her husband, a music teacher himself, how much she missed mariachi. “I told him that I really have to find a way back because it brought me so much joy.” In January 2018, the universe answered her call when her principal approached her with a unique idea: “Would you like to create a mariachi band for the students at Rudy Silva Elementary?” With that, Mariachi de Silva—an ensemble in Weslaco ISD consisting of third, fourth, and fifth graders—was born.
Tell us about this mariachi group you started.
Last year, my campus got a new principal, and she wanted to feature the students as much as possible. She approached me in January and said, “I heard you used to be a mariachi. I was wondering if you might want to do that here.” I had done a mariachi choir at Rodriguez Elementary in Austin ISD, but it was kindergarteners and first graders singing mariachi songs, no instruments. I told her that, and she said, “Do you think you could do it?” As soon as I said yes, she said she needed us to be ready to perform at the Fine Arts Festival on April 6 for the whole community. The group started in February. It was a great group of kids. Eleven students showed up to the first practice, and everything fell into place. The parents put all their trust in me. They let the children go to two-hour practices after school on Fridays. I thought, “If I’m gonna do this, we’ve got to do it well.” We’ve always got to put the kids in successful situations, and I would never agree to do it if I didn’t know that I would help them feel success. It took a lot of work, and we’re still working and adding songs. In February to May of last year, we had about 10 performances. Everyone wanted the kids to perform. This summer, they even performed at the Weslaco ISD Differentiation Conference.
What benefits have you already seen?
Last year, I was walking down the hall in the third- and fourth-grade wing where teachers display students’ work, and several teachers had given writing prompts to the students about “What makes you special? What do you like best about yourself?” I was in tears because a lot of the kids in the group wrote that what makes them special is that they’re in this ensemble. They feel important in it, and it makes them feel proud of themselves.
Why do you think being a part of this mariachi ensemble is so important for the children?
For starters, we live in South Texas on the border. I can’t stress enough the importance of recognizing one’s culture, history, and ancestry. It’s been rewarding to see the kids speaking more confidently about where they’re from, where their families come from, and the language that is spoken at home. I think that recognizing that part of themselves, being proud of their culture and heritage and sharing it, has paved a way for the kids to overall confidence. I’ve seen them open up and come into their own. They walk a little taller, and other kids look up to them.
Along with teaching a child an instrument, learning performance etiquette is essential—respectful behavior and how to present yourself are requirements for each mariachi member. The kids aren’t just playing instruments and singing. They’re presenting the whole group. They’re introducing each other and thanking the audience. I’m not in the group. They are the ones who step up and say, “Hello, we’re Mariachi de Silva. We hope you enjoy our show.” They’re in charge of the performance. In mariachi, there’s a lot of elements of drama. They’re dancing, swaying, and acting out parts of the song. They’re trying to bring more audience participation, and for all of that to be taught at a young age, I can only see how it could contribute to their self-confidence, public speaking, communication skills, and musicianship. My hope is that it carries over into everything else.
What’s been your favorite moment so far?
We got invited to open up for Weslaco Literacy Fiesta. It was the first time the kids went on by themselves, spaced themselves out, and introduced themselves. During the performance, they got off for a moment—the rhythm section wasn’t exactly where the singers were—and I heard them adjust and get back in sync. I was blown away by it. It was that first moment, from February to September, where I could see how much they had learned, not just about instrumentation or vocals, but about playing in an ensemble. Another moment happened in May, when the Weslaco High School mariachi director invited us to open for their show. It was a Mother’s Day concert, so the kids gave a rose to all the moms in the audience. It was perfect because mariachis are famous for serenades, and to see the kids partaking in that cultural tradition was beautiful. Mariachi at Mother’s Day is a powerful and impactful tradition.
What do you want people to know about this mariachi group and these students?
Don’t underestimate kids and what they’re capable of. They’ve impressed me with how much and how quickly they’ve learned, how much they’ve put themselves out there. They’re still developing social skills. They didn’t start as confident as they are now, but I’ve seen their progress and how much they’ve accomplished. And don’t underestimate yourself and how much you have to offer as a teacher.
After-school programs are worth dedicating your time to. If you have an opportunity to start an after-school program that encourages kids to learn and add to their skill set in an enjoyable way, do it! Learning is immeasurable. Developing a broader worldview, knowing your culture and recognizing the beauty of other cultures, enables us to be better people. If my group can be a counter to the negativity that kids see, then I’m proud of what we’re doing. If we can be a positive impact on others that brings joy and not hatred, I’m all for it. Just for that reason, this program is meaningful.
Do you have any future plans or goals on where to take the ensemble next?
One is to find more singers. Two is to add a violin or trumpet. If I’m not able to add violin or trumpet, because that’s difficult to teach kids this age, then to teach those parts on a xylophone as an introduction to the melody. Number three is to get the kids their trajes—the full mariachi suits. I would love to see them in the proper attire. And of course, adding more songs.
Anything else you want to add?
It was wonderful that our principal, Mrs. Gonzalez, had such an open mind about wanting to feature the students. It opened up so much for the school and kids. To administrators, I would say to know your staff, find out what their talents are and what they’re good at, and get them to use that to motivate the kids or to channel that talent into after-school programs. Teachers are multifaceted individuals. Any talent or skill they can share is worthwhile.
Finally, mariachi is a beautiful genre. The music is versatile and complex. It’s romantic, exciting, and tragic. It has given us a forum for talking about feelings through lyrics. We’ve talked about emotions and self-expression. Kids at this age care a lot about what others think and keep a lot to themselves. Mariachi has helped our children grow in confidence and to understand that emotions can be shared and expressed through music. Their growth as musicians, whether on guitarrón, vihuela, guitar, or vocals, makes them stand apart from the crowd. It is my hope that these students continue on this mariachi journey so they’ll always have a part of Rudy Silva Elementary with them wherever they go.
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