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Saturday, November 27, 2004 - Page updated at 12:07 A.M.

Picking up a cultural rhythm: Mariachi band helps Latino students

By Paul de Barros
Seattle Times staff reporter

Levi Valencia, left, leans in with his guitarron to help Jesus Herrera and Diego Cortes check their sound during mariachi band practice at Chief Sealth High School.
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Standing to the side of a semicircle of seated students, cap spun backward, Levi Valencia proudly hugs a bulging, oversized guitar called the guitarron, plucking big, solid bass notes with rhythmic authority.

Francisco Nuño-Marquez looks up, puzzled. He's trying to answer each strong downbeat with a sprightly upbeat on his guitar, but the time keeps slipping away, down the rabbit hole of the downbeat.

"Watch Diego," counsels Debbie Meyer, tapping out the brisk melody of "Allá en el Rancho Grande" on the piano. "If you get lost, stop, listen and watch. OK, let's try it again."

For a minute, the room fills with the springy beat and festive gaiety of mariachi strings, as the guitars and their little cousins, the vihuelas, answer the guitarron.

This is the band room at Chief Sealth High School, where Meyer teaches the only mariachi class in the Seattle schools — indeed, one of the few mariachi classes in the country. Now in its fifth year, the band has been a resounding hit with Sealth's burgeoning Latino student body. A source of cultural pride that has smoothed the way for many Latino newcomers, it also has kept kids in school who might otherwise have dropped out — in one case turning a young life 180 degrees.

"We are finding that we are able to reach students with mariachi that we weren't able to reach with other programs," says Delfino Muñoz, instructional assistant at Proyecto Saber, an on-site intervention program for Latino kids that originally sponsored the program. "When students are involved with music — any kind of music — their grades come up and their attendance comes up."


The Chief Sealth High School Mariachi Band will perform at 7 p.m. Dec. 16 at the school's Winter Concert. The school is at 2600 S.W. Thistle St. in Seattle.

Familiar to North Americans as the music of strolling musicians in pegged pants and vests at Mexican restaurants, mariachi is a regional music with origins in 19th-century Jalisco (where Guadalajara is the capital). Its name may be a corruption of a Virgin Mary festival called "Maria H" ("Maria Ah-chay"), though no one knows for sure.

Ensembles usually include trumpets, violins, guitars, vihuelas and the jumbo guitarron. Songs often tell mournful tales of spurned love or romantic deaths, like North American country music.

Sealth's mariachi band is the brainchild of Carlos Jimenez, who owns a graphics-and-sign business in White Center and who toured as a student with the University of Guadalajara's Ballet Folklorico. Jimenez suggested the idea to Proyecto Saber in 2000 as an after-school program.

During his three years as a volunteer, he rounded up instruments, taught kids classic songs and took them to festivals in California and Wenatchee (home base of Wenatchee High School's more well-known Mariachi Huenachi). When mariachi became a scheduled class at Sealth in 2002, Jimenez team-taught with Meyer for a year, then passed the baton.

"Young people are looking for attention, and they'll do whatever it takes," Jimenez says. "If you give kids at risk something that can motivate them and help them to create something, they're going to draw people's attention in a different kind of way."

Teacher Debbie Meyer, center, leads the trumpet players in her mariachi class at Chief Sealth High School: from left, Ezequiel Torres, Claudia Ramirez, Gerson Valencia and Maria Hernandez. To learn about the music, Meyer started playing in a mariachi band and studying classic recordings.
Mariachi is a natural at Sealth, which has the highest concentration of Latino students in the district — 23 percent, more than twice the district average. But the dropout rate among Latino students is high. Districtwide, more than one-third of the Latinos in the class of 2003 didn't graduate. Sealth's cultural programs may be one reason its dropout rate for Latino students is much lower — 17.5 percent.

Rogelio Gutierrez, a 21-year-old former gang member who played in the band four years ago, says the mariachi class helped him "straighten out" his life. He now studies automotive technology at South Seattle Community College.

"I joined because there were girls," he said, laughing. "I ended up sticking with it. Just the feeling of knowing that what you're doing is pleasing other people, and the joy of being up on stage. Wow, you're really important. You're somebody, like you accomplished something in life."

Many students in Meyer's class — there are 18 this year — have no musical training, so in class they break into small groups — violins in one band room, guitars in another and trumpets in the instrument-storage room. Kids mentor each other as Meyer floats from group to group.

After the bell, the students get right down to business, opening their instrument cases, tuning up and conversing quietly in Spanish.

Holly Eckert, a freshman who played in the orchestra at Washington Middle School and mariachi's only non-Latino kid, runs through a violin part with Yeni Perez-Santos, whose family emigrated from Oaxaca four years ago.

"Holly doesn't speak Spanish and I was afraid she would feel excluded," says Meyer, who took a Spanish class herself last summer, "but she's been just instrumental in teaching the new violinists. It's been fabulous."

Like jazz, mariachi is a cultural tradition that can't be absorbed exclusively from the written page. To become more fluent, Meyer, who played trumpet in Scott Brown's jazz band at Roosevelt High School, started playing in a mariachi band and studying classic recordings. Her students, by contrast, are culturally fluent but lack basic music skills.

"They've grown up hearing these songs all their lives," she says. "So what I stress is that they really need to learn how to read [music]. That way, I tell them, you don't have to hear someone else play it once for you."

University of Washington music-education professor Patricia Campbell says research suggests such culturally specific programs may help immigrants adjust much more rapidly to school, creating a comfort zone in an unfamiliar environment.

Ramona Holmes, chair of the music department at Seattle Pacific University, notes that, "The dropout rate went way down in Wenatchee when they started a mariachi band."

Says Meyer: "They have a place at school where they can say, 'Oh yeah, I know this. I have to learn English, I have to pass the WASL ... but I can come to this class and sing songs I've grown up with.' It's an affirmation of everything they know."

After section rehearsals, the best players gather in the main band room to perform "Y Andale," a lively waltz. Sixteen-year-old Maricruz Hernandez sings the plaintive vocal in Spanish, telling the sad tale of a guy who's going to tie one on if his beloved's parents won't let him see her again.

The fluorescent light in the classroom seems to come up a notch as the trumpets blast a bright refrain, answered by the violins. Every kid in the band is focused on the music and the other musicians.

"It's about the music," says Meyer. "It's also about watching these kids figure out who they are, and being proud of themselves."

Paul de Barros: 206-464-3247 or

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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