Art Works Blog

Dreaming Big at an Early Age

At yesterday's National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Awards, First Lady Michelle Obama stands with Mariachi Tesoro de San Fernando. The group is the performing ensemble of the Mariachi Masters Apprentice Program, a 2012 NAHYP Award honoree. Photo by Steven E. Purcell

For most musicians, performing at the White House is the result of a long and distinguished career, the culmination of a lifelong dream. For others, it is just the beginning, a promise of all that lies ahead.

This was the case for a group of young mariachi players who performed at the White House yesterday during the 2012 National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Awards. A joint initiative of the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities, the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Institute of Museum and Library Services, the awards recognize outstanding after-school programs that use the arts and humanities both to educate and build critical life and learning skills.

The mariachi players, who received a standing ovation following their electric performance, were all participants in San Fernando’s Natividad “Nati” Cano, an NEA Heritage Fellow and founder and director of the award-winning Mariachi Los Camperos. A largely Hispanic community with a population of 23,000, San Fernando already had strong roots in mariachi. But rather than rely on an informal oral tradition of teaching, MMAP offers students ages 10 through 18 the opportunity to learn mariachi music from master musicians so that they might one day become masters themselves. “[It’s] essentially raising the bar in making traditional mariachi music into an art form,” said Sergio Alonso, a harpist with Mariachi Los Camperos who doubles as an instructor for MMAP.

Students from Mariachi Tesoro de San Fernando perform yesterday at the White House. Photo by Steven E. Purcell

The program teaches students everything from repertoire and vocal coaching to music theory and the history of mariachi. Advanced students perform with MMAP’s ensemble, Mariachi Tesoro de San Fernando, and occasionally with Señor Cano’s Mariachi Los Camperos as well. In the process of rehearsing and performing, students also learn discipline, self-motivation, and responsibility, “skills they would essentially need in the classroom,” Alonso said. Virginia Diediker, who manages the program, noted that there is a 100 percent high school graduation rate among MMAP participants---and this in a school district where the typical graduation rate is 58 percent.

“MMAP is producing much more than talented mariachi artists,” Gerardo Ascencio, Sr., a parent advisor to MMAP whose three sons are alumni of the program. “It is producing incredible citizens and leaders for America.”

While MMAP helps foster musical and academic achievement, it has also rekindled students’ connections with their cultural heritage. Mariachi Tesoro de San Fernando performs throughout southern California, wearing traditional embroidered charro suits, playing traditional instruments, and singing in Spanish, which is very often their second language. Diediker described how the pride and dignity these young musicians develop has radiated from the students, touching all of San Fernando. “When you are empowering the self-confidence of the kids in the program, it transfers to the community,” she said. “It makes the community stronger.”

During yesterday’s award ceremony, First Lady Michelle Obama talked about the importance of teaching children to draw on their strengths to achieve greatness. “That’s what we expect: nothing but extraordinary.” After the performance by Mariachi Tesoro de San Fernando, these expectations for extraordinary seemed to have been reached. The First Lady gestured at the beaming ensemble, telling the audience, “This is why we do what we do.”

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