Mariachi: Mexican Pride and a Cultural Bridge for many PC Hispanic Students

Wednesday, September 6, 2023
Phoenix College faculty Dr. Rose French developed the Mariachi Ensemble in 2019
Two Phoenix College mariachi performers stand back to back in their trajes with a red backdrop
Phoenix College's mariachi ensemble performs at the Spring 2023 graduation ceremony at the Verteran's Mermorial Coliseum
Singers in Phoenix College's mariachi band perform
A mariachi violinist wearing a traditional traje plays her violin standing up

En Español. The sound of mariachi brings romping rhythms, lyrics of love and land, and respect for Mexico's natural and cultural heritage. The music celebrates the joys, struggles, and growth of the people. Though typically performed at baptisms, weddings, and holidays, live mariachi music delighted Phoenix College graduates and their families at the May 2023 Commencement , thanks to PC's––and Maricopa County Community College District's––first and only Mariachi ensemble, Osos del Valle. 

What does it mean to hear mariachi music at graduation? "It's great," said Dr. Rose French, Music faculty and Coordinator of Instrumental Studies, "We're doing something that celebrates Hispanic culture." Phoenix College is a Hispanic-serving institution. "I still get chills," Rose said, recalling graduation. "As soon as the music started, the audience cheered because they recognized the music." Graduates also rose from their seats and danced in blue graduation robes and caps on the coliseum floor. 

During her interview for a residential faculty position, Rose presented the idea of bringing Hispanic performing arts to Phoenix College. A professional French Horn player and founder of the Mill Avenue Chamber Players, Rose knew the importance of having events that reflect the student body: "We have to get beyond the traditional Western Art model of music in higher ed. Not everybody wants to play the French Horn and Beethoven. I want to give people in our community opportunities to connect with music connected to other cultures." Rose also started the PC Steel Pan ensemble. "One of the things I understood about my performing arts job is that it's very community-facing. A mariachi group is powerful [culturally and musically]. I felt a responsibility to make that happen."  

Her first step began in Spring 2019, securing funds to buy traditional instruments. She started with two guitarróns and two vihuelas. Then she hired Mike Dominguez, the band director from Maryvale High School, to be the mariachi director. Mike runs a very successful Mariachi program at Maryvale, and many of his students continue their mariachi studies at Phoenix College. "I was excited to take on this challenge," Mike said. "When you are adjunct faculty, it's easy to feel disconnected, but the college has been super supportive, helping us with fundraising. I'm excited to see how far we can take it." 

Mike started his mariachi career as a middle school trumpet player in Albuquerque. He eventually found a family ensemble of high school students to join, with two adults providing oversight and booking gigs. The students ran the group and figured out what songs to play. Thanks to Mike's leadership and mariachi experience, Maryvale grads are eager to join PC's ensemble. Iris Vega, who plays violin in the group, noted, "Most of us have been with Dominguez since high school, so we'll follow him wherever he goes." A case manager at a children's shelter, Iris plays mariachi to take her mind off the stress at work. "I love mariachi," she says, and her employer is flexible with her leaving early one day and staying late another day to accommodate any performances and time with the group. "We're all a family. We have fun and laugh, and when it's time to focus, we focus." 

Kate Romero, a Math major at Arizona State University (ASU), attends PC for mariachi. "I used to play orchestral music," Kate said, noting the switch from sitting to standing while playing the violin. She said the group was "super welcoming." The 2023 graduation performance for her was about visibility: "For many Hispanic people, it was a big sense of pride. Seeing the mariachi group be a visible part of campus–that's important." Emilee Robles, a full-time music major at PC and violin player in the mariachi ensemble, agreed: "As a Latino Hispanic person, mariachi has been a bridge for me, culturally. I'm not an immigrant. I'm never going to experience Mexican culture as a Mexican person because I was born here. But I experienced that mixing pot of culture in the mariachi ensemble. We are the diversity of music here in the United States. We are loving and experiencing our heritage, which is just as important as any other music in the world."

Essential parts of making mariachi visible are performances and trajes, the traditional outfit mariachi players wear. Like a marching band, a mariachi ensemble of 30 players needs around 100 garments to accommodate the various sizes of performers who come through the group. Uniforms are typically associated with athletics, so finding a funding source for the trajes was challenging. Rose collaborated with staff at the college who put her in touch with the Maricopa Community Colleges Foundation (MCCF). They saw the value in her proposal and agreed to fund the initial trajes investment - knowing she would raise additional money to support the ensemble. Tax-deductible donations support the mariachi ensemble. 

Wearing trajes, the group attended the Tucson International Mariachi Conference in April. "That was a new experience for most of us," said violinist Iris Vega, "because we hadn't yet played for that many people, especially on a stage where the most known mariachi played." She also noted the ensemble's educational opportunity: "Mariachi Vargas taught us, and they are the best of the best." Director Mike Dominquez explained, "Tucson has always had a culture of mariachi music. Their high school groups are amazing. I aim to bring that excitement for mariachi to the valley." Kate Romero was thrilled with their accomplishment: "Even for our first time gigging as a Phoenix College group––some of us playing for a while, some of us who haven't––we placed 8th out of 22 ensembles. We were pretty proud of that." Andrew Ramos, who plays the guitarrón, which is like a bass guitar, and has also played the vihuela, a small five-stringed instrument that plays the rhythmic element of the chords, said, "Being able to see all of my friends perform what we've been practicing all semester was a beautiful, satisfying moment. I was proud of us for all the hard work that we've put in."

Rose will continue her Mexico-facing work with the AZ/Mexico Commission, looking for ways to create a broader worldview among her students, especially those who still live at home. "Having my eyes opened with the opportunities to visit Mexico was helpful for me to think bigger about my life and career. She recently visited Hermosillo and Guaymas to check out a conservatory for low-income communities, similar to Rosie's House in Phoenix. She also works with the University of Sonora and met with the Secretaries of Education and Culture in May. Her participation in the three-week Mexico Faculty Development Program last year, facilitated by Mesa Community College's recently retired faculty, Jaime Herrera, has Rose eager to bring PC faculty to Mexico for faculty development. 

Homestays, Spanish immersion, and visits to cultural sites like museums and Garibaldi Square, where all the mariachis go to get hired, have positively impacted her classes. "Being in Mexico and being part of the daily life, I bring that experience back to my students. My students started to share their culture with me: 'My tia makes the best hot champurrado.' I want to create opportunities for our students and neighbors to make music together." Now that the Mariachi ensemble is performing, what's Rose working on next? "A study abroad program, an international mariachi festival on PC's campus, and a ballet folklorico group." 

The mariachi ensemble, Osos del Valle, will perform at the Mexican Independence Day celebration hosted by the Mexican Consulate at the Arizona Capitol. This outdoor event is on Friday, September 15 from 8 - 10:30 p.m. with the Grito de Delores (Cry of Delores) at 10:00 p.m. The event is free and open to the public. Join the celebration!