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School Mariachi Programs Engage and Inspire Latino Students

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At Zapata High School in south Texas, competition is fierce to earn one of 24 spots on the two-time state-champion varsity mariachi ensemble.

The upcoming PBS documentary “Mariachi High,” airing on June 29 at 9 p.m. ET (also check local listings), tells the story of the award-winning musical group and shows students going through the audition process and then competing. Zapata High School’s enrollment is about 99 percent Latino and 76 percent economically disadvantaged.

In response to the growing popularity of such programs, in 2008 Texas added a varsity mariachi competition category to its statewide  University Interscholastic League music competitions. Ensembles must include violins, trumpets, armonia (such as vihuela ,guitarrón and guitar) and vocals.

The Huffington Post spoke with Mariachi Halcon band leader Adrian Padilla about the students, all of whom from the most recent team have gone on to college. He recalled how one student decided to study music in college. ”When I heard that I was just like, wow,” Padilla told the Post. “I remember when (this student) first came to me and said he’d felt neglected and left behind. I told him that I guarantee by the time you’re a senior, you’re going to be top dog.”

The program has also spurred parent involvement in preparation for the competitions. Teen-ager Eloy Martinez first fell in love with the music when he heard the band playing six years ago, as a fifth-grader.

“The first day I just sat there watching, listening,” he said in The Huffington Post. “I didn’t play any instrument and I thought, I don’t know what it is, but I like it.”

Texas isn’t the only state that encourages such programs. They are popping up in hundreds of schools all over the country, from Las Vegas to towns in rural Iowa. Many educators hope that getting more minority and low-income students involved in arts education will push them forward toward higher education.

““At a time when Latinos have the highest dropout rate in the country and when arts education continues to be under attack, we found a story of teens who pursue excellence through their cultural heritage despite some very real challenges,” Ilana Trachtman, the show’s producer and director, said in a PBS press release. “This is an exuberant story about ambitious and talented Mexican-American teenagers — whom you hardly ever see on screen.”

You can localize this story by checking to see if your local schools are offering similar programs. School systems with thriving programs include the Clark County School District in Las Vegas, Pasco School District in eastern Washington, and the Garland Independent School District outside of Dallas. The University of North Texas also offers a summer mariachi camp for middle and high school students.