Truth be told, John Contreras joined a guitar class in second grade because of a girl. “I liked her. She was in the class,” he says. “So I told my dad it was time to get me a guitar.”
But music was already in Contreras’s blood. His father played in a trio and there were always guitars around the house. “I played a lot of air guitar,” he said. “It was a natural progression. I’d see what my dad was doing and I’d want to pick up a guitar.”
He continued studying music and in junior high school joined a community mariachi group because, “There were no school programs at that time,” he said.
But soon a movement began that would change Tucson’s schools forever, infusing them with the melodies, rhythms, style, and discipline of mariachi music.
Contreras’s mentor, Richard Carranza, was one of the main instigators of the movement, founding the mariachi program at Pueblo High School, now in its 25th year.
“Richard really wanted mariachi to be a part of the school system, to give kids the opportunity to learn and perform,” Contreras said.
But there were lots of naysayers in those days. “People said it couldn’t be done because there was no written music. So Richard wrote music. Then they said there was no curriculum. So he came up with a curriculum. That’s how it started,” Contreras said.
Now Contreras directs the mariachi program at Pueblo, where he has helped hundreds, if not thousands, of youth connect to their culture through music and gain the kind of confidence they need to thrive in the world.
Contreras teaches two beginning classes, one intermediate ensemble class, and an advanced performance class, whose members form the touring group, Mariachi Aztlán. Students in the group rehearse four days a week, both during and after school, for a total of nearly 10 hours.
The program impacts students in multiple ways, Contreras said. First, it connects them to their culture. Some of his students are first or second generation Mexican and quickly assimilate to American culture.
“I’ve seen it personally that they get into mariachi and then they’re asking, Can we play Las Mañanitas? So we play and then they’ll see their grandmother cry. All of the sudden they put two and two together. Now they’re connected through the songs. It’s a transformation,” he said.
In short time, the students’ playlists evolve. “They still have Beyoncé on there and whatever’s popular, but they also have Mariachi Vargas and Pedro Infante, these classic mariachi artists,” he said.
Playing mariachi also gives youth a sense of family and belonging. “They fight sometimes like brothers and sisters, but they have to put that behind them when it’s time to perform for the better of the group,” he said.
Destiny Olea, a senior at Pueblo and the president of Mariachi Aztlán, echoes that sentiment. “In high school it’s hard to find your group. Friends come and go. But in mariachi we are a family.”
Olea, a member of the Yaqui tribe, played guitar and piano throughout her childhood. In middle school she joined the orchestra and learned violin. One year she went to the Tucson International Mariachi Conference at Casino del Sol was blown away by what she saw.
After that she followed Mariachi Aztlán and went to Pueblo High school. “Freshman year I was in the intermediate class. I learned basic skills and how read music and then I auditioned. By sophomore I was in it,” she said.
Olea said performing in the group has helped her learn time management and discipline, which she needs as an honor student who’s not only president of the mariachi group but also plays extracurricular sports. “I learn to manage myself so I don’t have to stress out. That’s something I’m very thankful for right now. When I go to college I’ll have that,” she said.
That kind of discipline helped Carissa Grijalva who went through the mariachi program at Tucson High School and graduated in 2013. Now a doctoral student in biomedical engineering at the University of Arizona, she attributes her academic success, in part, to playing mariachi.
“We were a group, and we counted on each other. We had to be disciplined with our practice and show up and be responsible. We practiced to be perfect. Mariachi helped me become a diligent worker, diligent musician, and a diligent student,” she said.
Grijalva’s father was a trumpet player and had shared his love for the music with her. “I was able to connect with my culture and my family in a new way. All of my family grew up with mariachi music—it was always played at family functions and parties.”
Grijalva started playing violin at Roskruge Middle school, where she was in both the orchestra and mariachi programs, then went on to join Mariachi Rayos del Sol at Tucson High along with Tesoro de Tucson, a community group. “It was really great to be able to travel outside of town and reach other areas and see the effect of the music in other places,” she said.
Mariachi, she said, gave her a lot of confidence. “When I got to college that helped with my ability to give presentations in class and to speak out.”
Students involved in music tend to do better academically, Contreras said. “It’s utilizing the creative side of your brain,” he said.
Through music and performance, students learn to present themselves with poise in front of others. “Once we performed for AZ Cardinals halftime show. There were 60,000 people in that arena. Where else are youth going to be able to have that kind of opportunity?” he says.
Contreras has seen students who barely talk when they first come into his classes. After a year or two they are speaking in public or doing interviews.
And while many students don’t continue with mariachi after high school, they learn the importance of discipline and can apply that to other activities and work, he said.
“You put in hours and hours and learn to work together. There’s a lot of teamwork involved. And you have to learn to think on the fly. They surprise me with that sometimes. When a singer won’t sing the way it’s supposed to go and they’ll change it and respond right there on the spot.”
Responding in the moment is something that perhaps goes beyond performance time. After Hurricane Harvey hit Houston, Olea couldn’t help but think about the impact on the mariachi programs there. She knew Richard Carranza, the founder of the Pueblo’s program, worked as a school superintendent there, and wondered how he and his students were faring.
“Everything on the news showing the flooding of the houses and trees and I thought, wait, what about the instruments,” Olea said. “Some of schools were inundated. Violins and guitarrones fell apart in kids’ hands after they were damaged.”
With the help Mariachi Aztlan’s vice president, Kiana Martinez, and the group’s parent association, Olea helped organize a benefit concert called “Students Helping Students,” which raised nearly $6,000 for schools in the Houston Independent School District. “We have a lot of love for them even though we don’t know them,” Olea said.
Indeed, it’s the sense of family and camaraderie that most students of mariachi prize. “We were all respectful and responsible with each other,” Grijalva said. “It was a such a large support system that I’ve carried on to college. We’re all still great friends even though we’re in different places.”
- Mariachi Aztlán has a Facebook page here.
- And here’s a wonderful 2015 piece from Arizona Public Media on Mariachi Aztlán de Pueblo High School. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E1vsD19UuaM
- Mariachi Aztlán director John Contreras is also a founder and member of Mariachi Luz de Luna, a professional mariachi group in Tucson.
- Also, please follow and support The Mariachi Miracle, a documentary film-in-the-making by filmmaker Daniel Buckley about the youth mariachi movement in Tucson.