When students participate in high-quality arts learning over time, they gain new ways to express themselves, work together and explore the world around them. Research shows that this is especially true for students from disinvested communities, learners with diverse needs and students who have experienced trauma. That’s why Polk Bros. Foundation supports efforts to bring ongoing arts learning into Chicago’s public school classrooms.
Mariachi Heritage Foundation (MHF) is one of the Polk Bros. Foundation grantees working to increase access to the arts across Chicago Public Schools by establishing long-term and high-quality arts programs inside schools. The program imparts music skills through the mariachi tradition while building student voice, leadership and connection to Mexican culture. It also often strikes a chord with families in a way that helps them feel more connected to their child’s school. MHF’s model is especially compelling because partner schools hire full-time mariachi music teachers with support from MHF, and all their principals have decided to keep these teachers in place permanently.
We’re grateful Cesar has agreed to share his insights in this post.
Cesar: Founded in 2013, the Mariachi Heritage Foundation (MHF) exists to affirm, celebrate and preserve the rich cultural heritage of mariachi music. MHF seeks to create opportunities for individuals and communities to celebrate, share and sustain the vitality of Mexico’s mariachi music tradition. Our work promotes the importance of cultural heritage for strengthening ethnic identity and community.
MHF implements mariachi music education programs in CPS schools with predominantly low-income Latino students. MHF partners with CPS schools to deliver a standards-based, sequential music program aligned to CPS Arts Education Plan goals, CPS Arts Scope & Sequence guidelines, and to new National Core Arts Standards. Additionally, the mariachi curriculum includes social and emotional learning outcomes and literacy standards to ensure a well-rounded arts education.
Cesar: Through our program’s comprehensive and sequential study of mariachi music, students become creative thinkers and problem solvers. A robust arts education program is not simply about what students know and do in the arts, but most importantly what they understand. We believe quality arts instruction engages students and promotes overall academic advancement. The MHF program leads to student empowerment, it gives students a voice, it helps develop discipline, teaches self-confidence, engages parents and the community, validates what students do in the “core” classroom and helps to celebrate and preserve culture and heritage.
The program also gives students an opportunity to perform and further build their musical abilities. Over 100 CPS students from across the district make up MHF’s audition-based mariachi music program called Mariachi Herencia de México. The ensemble has released three studio albums, each debuting at number one and number two on the iTunes Latin and Billboard Latin Albums charts, respectively. In 2017, the group scored a Latin GRAMMY® nomination in the “Best Ranchero/Mariachi Album” for their debut album titled “Nuestra Herencia (Our Heritage).” Additionally, Mariachi Herencia de México has toured throughout the United States, Canada and Mexico sharing the mariachi tradition with international audiences.
CPS students also perform in MHF’s annual mariachi performing arts series, held in Chicago’s most prestigious performing arts venues, including the Harris Theater for Music and Dance, Auditorium Theatre of Roosevelt University, Jay Pritzker Pavilion at Millennium Park, Chicago Symphony Center and National Museum of Mexican Art, among others.
Mariachi music engages not just the students, but their families as well. It is always amazing to see so many parents in the mariachi classroom on report card pick-up day. Due to its cultural relevance, mariachi has helped engage families into school life in a significant way.
Cesar: Mariachi music education in a formal setting like our program is a relatively new idea. Mariachi programs have existed for many decades across the country on an after-school basis, but in-school, curriculum-based mariachi music programs are rare. That said, one of our challenges is getting stakeholders to buy in and view mariachi as a legitimate music education program like band, orchestra or choir. We’re very proud that our program goes beyond music theory and instrument technique in that it also teaches students about their own heritage and traditions. As the leader of MHF, my work often involves a continuous effort to educate people on mariachi music and what it can do to help transform young lives in our community.
I’ve found that when people see our students perform, they immediately see the impact of the program. In mariachi music, you not only develop music skills and learn to play an instrument, but you also learn to perform and interpret the music with a specific style and passion unique to this genre.
We recently partnered with Merit School of Music’s brass ensemble to perform a mariachi arrangement of West Side Story at Millennium Park. This was the first time we partnered with a classical institution on a project and it was a fantastic experience. We started with a brass arrangement from Dave Sporny of some of Leonard Bernstein’s most known songs from the musical. The first task for our students was to take Sporny’s work and write our own musical arrangement and score for the mariachi instruments, including rhythm, strings, harp and voice. When we finally got to rehearse with Merit, their director was blown away by what our mariachi students could do. They went to rehearsal with the music already memorized and ready to perform. The Merit director reflected to me that, at first, he was unfamiliar with mariachi. By the end of the experience, the director expressed how impressed he was with our students’ musical ability and talent. He said our mariachi students went beyond reading and playing notes – that our kids were making music.
Cesar: I wish others could understand that MHF’s mariachi curriculum is about so much more than tempo and tone. It brings three essential learning opportunities to CPS students, including an appreciation of the rich heritage of Mexico, skills that students need to succeed in every subject, and music. While most music curricula include a variety of unrelated compositions, MHF’s program makes a unique contribution to students’ learning – they learn how music represents a culture. So instead of learning about tempo and tone with any music, the students become proficient musicians as they listen to, sing and play the music of Mexico. It is a unique enrichment of the curriculum that accomplishes much more than the standard music curriculum – it frames music as a way to understand and represent Mexican culture.
The program helps students develop insights into Mexican culture as they increase their abilities to collaborate, work with precision, develop the discipline necessary to perform music, and learn how to communicate through music. The emphasis on performance gives students a meaningful goal and the professional abilities that will enable them to succeed now and in future classrooms and workplaces. As most CPS students have limited opportunities to learn music at all, this program is particularly valuable to students, their families and their school community.
Cesar: It’s not very common to see Latino students participating in music programs, but they naturally get mariachi. Parents identify with it immediately, too. When we start a new program, we hit the numbers right away because we have so many students who want to participate. From day one, we already have the parents paying attention and engaged. There’s a culture and heritage component, and that helps our programs flourish.
And that’s just where our work begins. A lot of our students want to go to college and study music, but there are very few, if any, university-level mariachi programs. So we support our students to get admitted into classical programs, and to thrive in those programs. Some of our students are now in Chicago Youth Symphony Orchestras and Chicago Musical Pathways Initiative, for example, and we’re continuing to work with the students a lot.
The bottom line is student engagement in a relevant and cultural way – that’s why we’re here.
Cesar Maldonado is President of Mariachi Heritage Foundation