A New Generation of Mariachis Thrives in El Barrio

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Some say the term "mariachi" was derived from the French word for marriage, while others claim it comes from the indigenous name for the wood used to make guitars. There are many theories as to how the term "mariachi" came about, but one thing that is for sure is that mariachis, in their wide-brimmed hats and festive charro outfits, have added plenty of alegria to weddings, restaurant outings, birthdays, and even funerals and masses. Their music captures the heart and soul of Mexican culture and tradition, as well as that of the listener.

Mariachi music has prospered greatly ever since its origin in Jalisco, Mexico in the early 19th century. Originally, the mariachi ensemble was made up of violins, a harp and guitars. With time, it evolved to include the vihuela, two violins, and the guitarron (which replaced the harp), and then eventually trumpets were added. During the Mexican Revolution, the mariachis would wander from town to town, singing songs of revolutionary heroes and bringing news of the war everywhere they went.

The musical style has been carried on as a Mexican tradition for decades, due to the undying support of the people in their communities. The popularity of the genre expanded even more with the arrival of radio and television, and now mariachi music can be heard all over the world.

With the Mexican population growing at such a rapid rate in New York, the desire for Mexican culture and tradition has increased as well. The idea for a local mariachi school for children came from the renowned father and son mariachi team, Ramon Ponce Sr. and Jr. Their Queens-based group, Mariachi Real de Mexico, has been playing public and private events for years, and has even appeared on such Spanish-language television programs as Sabado Gigante.

When I asked what the main reason was for starting the Academy, Ramon Ponce Jr. said, "Porque ninos nos preguntaban, "’Donde podemos aprender?"’ ("Because kids [wherever we would perform] would ask us, "’Where can we learn?"’)

About two years after the initial seed was planted in their heads, in July of 2002, the Ponces opened the doors of the Mariachi Academy of New York – the first mariachi school on the east coast. The school was made possible with outreach support from The Mexican Cultural Institute of New York and the Consulate General of Mexico, the sponsorship of the Mariachi Association of New York, and a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts.

The cohesiveness of the Mexican community in El Barrio is evident at the Mariachi Academy of New York, which is open to Mexican and non-Mexican students alike, ages 9-17. The teachers often volunteer their time if funds are low, and the parents get involved by encouraging their children and bringing homemade food to events. It is indeed a community project.

"I believe the Academy… has shown that immigrants, especially among the Mexican community, understand [that] their children are becoming more assimilated as Americans, and thus appreciate and take advantage of opportunities to teach the younger generations about Mexican music and culture," says President of the Board of Directors, Adlar Garcia.

There are six teachers who conduct two classes a week (Wednesday evenings and Saturday afternoons) in voice, violin, trumpet, guitar, vihuela, and guitarron at the Union Settlement Association. This center in East Harlem generously donates classroom space for the program – now consisting of 70 students, only five to ten of whom are not fully Mexican. Some were born here, and some were born in Mexico.

"If kids don’t apply in the summer, they have to wait a whole other year, because the program begins in the fall. Auditions take place only in the summer," says Program Coordinator, Itandehui Chavez-Geller.

The mariachi kids are becoming well known throughout the city. They have done community performances in schools, museums, and at various cultural/community associations.

"It’s quite a success. Everyday we have a growing waiting list," says Chavez-Geller. "The most important thing we look for during the auditions is the child’s interest. Most don’t know an instrument before they start," she adds.

The next big show is on May 8th, for Mother’s Day, from 1-5 p.m at the Union Settlement Association Center on 104th Street, between 3rd and 2nd Avenues. This will be a fundraiser performance with authentic Mexican food available.

"Mi vision y sueno es que los estudiantes de la Academia de Mariachi lleguen a ser grandes personalidades y me encantaria que varios de ellos sean mariachis profesionales. Si no son mariachis, por lo menos sentirse orgullosos de su musica y su cultura," says Ramon Ponce Jr. ("My vision and dream is that the students of the Mariachi Academy grow up to be great personalities, and I’d love to see some of them become professional mariachis. If they aren’t mariachis, (I hope they will) at least feel proud of their music and their culture."]