April 27, 2001

Students Perform At Higher Levels, Thanks to Mariachi Music

By Yvette tenBerge

(Left to right) Cindy Espinoza sings as her sister Alicia plays "Cariño" on her vihuela.

It is a Thursday evening, and a small group of 13 and 14 year-old Montgomery Middle School students gathers in the laundry room of the Park Lido Apartment complex in south San Diego. Parents and curious neighbors hover at the doorway to watch as the boys and girls, who have arrived carrying hand-crafted instruments rather than baskets of dirty clothes, set up their music stands. Positioned amidst the washers and dryers, they pick up their violins, vihuelas, guitars, guitarrons and trumpets and begin to play. They are practicing "No me queda más," a love song written about a woman whose lover has replaced her with another.

These teenagers, all students of Montgomery Middle School's mariachi program, have come together as they do several times each month, to rehearse songs and to perform before an audience. Although they are already assigned up to five hours of weekly practice (which includes time in the classroom), they have not organized these extra sessions because they feel that they have to; on the contrary, they have scheduled these sessions because they want to. While the idea of mandatory homework is nothing new, it is surprising to encounter a course that, for the simple joy of mastering the subject, can motivate its students to voluntarily give up watching television and playing video games.

Mariachi Griego and instructor Keith Ballard with former President Bill Clinton.

By now, much of San Diego has either seen or heard about Mariachi Griego de Montgomery Middle School, the school's 27-member advanced mariachi ensemble with its intensely dedicated instructor, Keith Ballard. The group, which was named after Bob Griego, the Sweetwater Union High School District Board President who helped to bring mariachi to the school, has perfected its presentation enough to have been featured on San Diego's television stations and in its newspapers. They have also performed for former president Bill Clinton and for then presidential candidate George W. Bush.

The impact of this program, though, runs more deeply than the accolades it receives from its audiences. While widespread recognition has most certainly been a positive thing for the group, the music and the chance to be part of a successful team has had far more important and lasting benefits for the band members, themselves. It is in this area that the true success of the program lies.

At a time when art and music programs have taken a back seat to standardized tests and when school administrators are faced with an extraordinarily high drop-out rate for Hispanic students, the dedication and improved academic performance of teens enrolled in the mariachi program has commanded attention. Alicia Espinoza, the 14 year-old Salvadorian and Puerto-Rican student who hosts the impromptu "jam sessions" in her laundry room, partly credits her ability to read and understand music with having helped to transform her into a high-performing math student. She also believes that the mariachi program has improved her school experience in other ways, as well.

"I am not a sports-type person, but I still wanted to do something that was my own. I did not want to be bored around the house, or get into trouble arguing with my brother and sister. I dedicate my time to [mariachi] because I feel like it really helps me," says Ms. Espinoza, an articulate and friendly eighth grader who joined Mr. Ballard's mariachi program as a seventh grader. She heads into the immaculately kept, lilac-colored bedroom that she shares with her sister, Cindy, and emerges with her vihuela, a five-stringed instrument that resembles a guitar, except for its smaller size and smaller neck. "Mariachi lets me show my talent to people, it improves my self-esteem, and it gives me experiences that other people do not get to have."

Ms. Espinoza begins to play a song called "Cariño" while Cindy, a member of Mr. Ballard's Island Steel Drum Band at Montgomery High School, sings along. Their grandmother, Juanita Morales, sits in a dining room chair with her hands folded in her lap. She gently sways to the music with a smile on her face. "I think that including these music programs [in our schools] was a good idea, and it's a good way for our kids to spend their time. I like to hear them practice, it gives me joy to listen to them," says Ms. Morales, who lives a few doors down from her grandchildren. "I especially like that they are learning music from our Latin culture."

It is this connection to "Latin culture" that caused local elected officials to commit to bringing a pilot mariachi program to Montgomery Middle School in 1999. The Sweetwater school district, which serves the communities of Bonita, Chula Vista, Eastlake, Imperial Beach, National City, Otay Mesa and San Ysidro, estimates that over 80 percent of their students come from "ethnically diverse backgrounds." Of the 33,000 secondary students who attend the district's schools, over 60 percent are of Hispanic descent. The Hispanic population of Montgomery Middle School and High School, though, is even higher than the average. Located just three miles from the U.S./ Mexican border, it is estimated that as many as 80 percent of their students are Hispanic.

Carlos Cardenas plays his violin in his living room.

With such high numbers, the call for a program that ties into and that supports the culture and the ethnic background of Hispanic students seems obvious, but even so, there are still some educators who have questioned the validity of the mariachi program.

Following in the steps of Texas and New Mexico schools, where mariachi programs are the norm, the district supplied $100,000 to get the program up and running. This funding was used to hire a full-time instructor and to obtain classrooms, music, instruments, lockers and uniforms. While this seems like an overwhelming display of support, there has also been no small amount of controversy. Bob Griego, the Board President at the time, admits that the program met with a great deal of resistance from school administrators in the beginning, and that it continues to experience its share of resistance from other district music programs.

"[Other district music programs] see mariachi as competition for resources, but the school needs to back any program that successfully keeps children engaged in school. The aim is to improve student achievement, keep [the students] off the streets and [keep them] studying. Schools need to implement strategies to connect with all student cultures and needs," says Mr. Griego, explaining the reasoning behind the Board's decision to fund the program. "Mariachi is a program strategy that is supported by Latino students. When they believe that they can be accepted for their culture, they will achieve in other programs."

This is where mariachi benefits not only the teens who participate in it, but also the school system that stands behind it. Mariachi not only makes accomplished musicians, it also creates accomplished students.

Angie Perez, the mother of the Espinoza girls, has noticed her daughters' attraction to Mr. Ballard's music programs and has used it to encourage them to keep up their performance in school. "I have to say that I am very proud of my children. There have been times when they brought me home grades that I was not happy with, and I did tell them that if they did not bring me a better grade next time, that I would not let them go to mariachi or steel drums [practices]. You know, it worked," says Ms. Perez, a soft-spoken woman who describes herself as the girls' "biggest fan." Her daughters roll their eyes and laugh as she recalls the countless times she has made them pose for her camera at performances. "Like any parent, I want my kids to be really ready for the world. I know that Mr. Ballard is tough with the kids and really enforces discipline, and I think that that's important and that it works."

The mariachi program also hit home for Carlos Cardenas, a 14 year-old, straight-A student who plays the violin in Maricahi Griego. Born in Mexico, Mr. Cardenas grew up listening to mariachi with his parents and decided to take up the violin in part because his great-grandfather was known for his skill as a violin player. "Growing up listening to mariachi music helped me to learn, because if you mess up while practicing, you know what the songs are supposed to sound like and you don't give up as easily. What surprised me about the class was the diversity. Mexicans aren't the only ones who want to join," says Mr. Cardenas, explaining that Asian, African-American and Anglo students also sign up and successfully perform in the program. "My favorite parts about being in mariachi are being able to hear music that I love and the performances. Not a lot of schools have mariachi, but what they should understand is that music is a very important way to express yourself. It might not be in a book, but it's still poetry; it's just being sung."

Mr. Cardenas goes on to say that, although his performance in school has always been strong, being in mariachi has helped him in areas where book work leaves off. "Playing mariachi has taught me a lot about life. You have to follow rules, learn sportsmanship, and learn how to treat people. I will say that I would have not gotten into music had it not been for mariachi, until then, nothing caught my attention."

Linda Brickley, an English and History teacher who has been at Montgomery for the past 16 years, agrees with Mr. Cardenas' observation. She has watched first hand as schools have lessened their focus on the arts, and believes that this shift has occurred, in part, because of the public outcry for better test scores. While it has yet to be seen whether that shift away from the arts will actually improve raw test scores, it is clear that, at least for many students in the band, the program has actually improved their academic performance rather than detracted from it. It also appears that taking away from the arts may leave students without enough ways in which to learn other, equally important lessons about life.

"What people might not realize is that it is important for middle school students to learn socialization. One of our responsibilities is to teach kids how to get along in a variety of situations with adults and their peers. We can read about human interaction in literature and assign group projects, but in mariachi, the students get to experience this first hand," says Ms. Brickley. "When a student finds that they are successful at something and they get to go out and perform, it gives them a sense of accomplishment which they carry with them when they go on to learn something else."

In a world where peer pressure is a powerful element in deciding whether students will take a program seriously, it seems the student body at Montgomery Middle School has opened its arms to the program with overwhelming enthusiasm. Ms. Brickley notes that there has been a band at the school for as long as she has been teaching there, but that she has never seen the level of response that she has seen with the mariachi program. "Keith Ballard has put his heart into this program, and these kids have responded and given it their all in return. The whole student body supports them, and they love to hear them play. I am not Hispanic, but I feel that mariachi music is a part of all of us who live here. It is music that is part of our area and our heritage, and I believe that every student can relate to it and learn something from it."

According to information released by Keith Ballard, the Sweetwater Union High School District Board has just allotted $400,000 for use in initiating six other mariachi programs in the district. Based on the success of his program and on the high number of students who have chosen to continue pursuing mariachi at a high school level, the following Chula Vista schools will begin mariachi programs:

Castle Park Middle School

Castle Park High School

Montgomery High School (program will expand)

Granger Junior High School

National City Middle School

Sweetwater High School

To book performances or find out more about the program, Keith Ballard can be reached at 619-662-4044.

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