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The Lively Arts

Making Mariachi

Thanks to its innovative school program, Deming unofficially has the highest number of mariachi groups per capita of any town in New Mexico.

Marjorie Lilly

 

 

"ONE tay-ta, TWO tay, ONE-tee tay, TWO."

Paul Smith is teaching his mariachi students how to read music. It's the last period at Deming High School, and the kids are relaxed and smiling. No instruments today, just hand-clapping and voice. There's a lot of back and forth between the teacher and students.

mariachi
Deming mariachi group Angels of the Earth performs in Bayard. (Photo by Constance Albrecht)

"OK, we're having too much fun," Smith says, and they laugh.

It's the usual array of adolescents, some skinny-as-a-pole, others with weight problems, some kids self-conscious and shy and others bright and outgoing.

These students are playing for Mariachi Amistad, the first mariachi group formed in the public schools in Deming and now the most advanced one in high school. Mariachi Companeros and Mariachi Alegre are also in the high school, and the middle school group is called Mariachi Familia.

Deming unofficially has the highest number of mariachi groups per capita of any town in New Mexico. One of the reasons is that the public schools and other local people have actively supported the growth of the groups.

"I'm the only full-time mariachi teacher that I know of — anywhere," says Smith. In his classes, Smith calls upon his own long career in teaching, composing and playing music (including as half of the local folk duo Rainger, with his wife, Sue Wise Smith).

 

The schools have done such a good job of preparing musicians that Deming mariachi have been showcased six times at the International Mariachi Conference in Las Cruces, which started in 1993.

Several groups of graduates have spun off from the school groups. These include Corazon del Desierto, Angeles de mi Tierra, Ilusion, Rosas del Desierto (an all-female group), Tierra Bella and Diamantes.

Some of these groups straddle Deming and Las Cruces now because several players are going to NMSU. They play at weddings, quinceaneras, birthday parties, or any kind of party, sometimes getting $200 an hour.

At times they play in Silver City and Lordsburg, where there are few prominent mariachi groups. They even play in Las Cruces, where there are only about as many mariachi groups as in Deming, in a city more than six times the size.

 

At the Christmas concert in December, all three high school mariachi groups played — Amistad, Companeros and Alegre. Smith cheerfully manned the lighting and sound systems.

mariachi
Montserrat Ramirez (front) playing the guitarrone: “I practice daily just to keep the rhythm going.”

He says his students have "taken ownership" of the program. They need very little help from him as a conductor because the guitarrones (big guitars) maintain the rhythm and are often amplified. The students also choose their own songs.

At each grade level, there are some students with surprisingly strong voices and stage presence.

My first exposure to Mariachi Amistad was during an assembly when I subbed at the middle school. I was so surprised as I watched students that I'd probably despaired over and disciplined in some way, as they belted out songs with aplomb and maturity.

There's nothing quite like a mariachi band when you get 12 to 16 players working together like a well-oiled machine. They sing with full-voiced and full-hearted abandon to the thumping of the guitarrones and the playing of trumpets and violins. The costumes, dating in style back to the 19th century, are handsome, and the music never loses a deep-set kind of courtesy and traditionalism despite the intense emotions put out.

There couldn't be another immigrant group in the US that is as enthusiastic about the music from the old country as the Latino students are about mariachi. The audience at the Christmas concert responded with gritos (shouts), whistles, clapping and low shouting of names. There's nothing even a little bit old-fashioned about the music to them.

 

Everybody attributes the impressive success of the program to Albert Valverde. Howard Schwartzman, a local violinist who was an assistant to Valverde for a few years, says he was a "total motivator."

"Mr. V," as he's often called, grew up in Deming and played in his father's band, which performed both Mexican and American songs.

He was a band director in Deming for 20 years, sometimes at the public schools and other times at a local Christian school. (Smith was a student of Valverde beginning in seventh grade.)

"In 1996 I had retired from the band program [at Deming High School]," says Valverde. "I asked Mr. Madrid [the principal] if I could just teach guitar.

"The classes for guitar doubled," he says. "In one class we had 93 students, and in another we had 68. We had to divide them in half. From there the idea of a mariachi group began."

These efforts coincided with the rise of the International Mariachi Conference in Las Cruces. "We put an ensemble together. We didn't have violins, so we used a marimba. The Conference selected us for the showcase."

After that, Ruben Torres, a Deming school committee member, said, "Why don't you continue?" Valverde recalls, "That's when 18 violins were provided by the school." That's also when Schwartzman was brought in to help teach violin.

 

Valverde has no doubt that mariachi has kept some students from dropping out. "They're in an English environment and underneath there is an identity crisis," he says. "They listen to mariachi, and for some reason it draws them in.

"I've had some kids that were completely shy," he goes on. "Those that feel that the music spoke to them, they just blossomed. Some of them I knew were at risk of dropping out. I knew they would be in school every day to participate in my class."

Valverde adds, "One of them was so shy he couldn't even talk to you. He's now teaching guitarron, and he helped start the all-female group Rosas del Desierto."

The main outside source of instruction for most of the musicians are mariachi conferences, where they attend master classes taught by professionals. Some of Valverde's students went to a conference in Corpus Christi, Texas, where they took classes from Mariachi Vargas. Valverde's eyebrows rise as he tells this — Vargas is a famous group that goes back to 1897 in Mexico

"This exposure really charges up the kids," he says.

 

The students in the mariachi groups are weeded out of a large crowd of aspirants. They need to have a love of the art to take it this far.

Montserrat Ramirez tells how he got involved with mariachi. "I fell in love with the bass when I first heard it and how it could play," he says. "I practice daily just to keep the rhythm going."

Gabriela Zuniga says she got interested when her older sister Amanda became a mariachi.

Smith says Gabriela, only a sophomore, excels at stage presence. "Honestly, I have low self-esteem," she says. "But when I get that adrenaline rush, I just give my all. I don't care if it sounds ugly, if it's out-of-tune, or I sing a wrong note — it's just that at that moment I'm on fire."

Eddie Trevizo, a senior, got inspired when his uncle played in Mariachi Amistad in 1997. "I practice twice a day — right after school and before I go to sleep." He's already playing in the group Ilusion.

With this kind of honest commitment, these kids are likely going to carry on their relationship with mariachi for years.

 

 

Marjorie Lilly writes the Borderlines column.

 

 



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