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August 22, 2019

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An opportunity of a lifetime: Mariachi students get rare chance to play on big stage

Mariachi Workshops

Steve Marcus

Adilene Plancarte, a Canyon Springs High School junior, dances during the Ballet Folklorico workshop at Cashman Field Center on May 17, 2012. The Clark County School District mariachi students and dancers will perform in the 2012 Las Vegas Latin Commerce Mariachi Festival at the Smith Center for the Performing Arts Friday, May 18.

Mariachi Festival at The Smith Center

Members of Mariachi Cobre sing the National Anthem during the Las Vegas Latin Chamber of Commerce Mariachi Festival at the Smith Center for the Performing Arts Friday, May 18, 2012. Launch slideshow »

Mariachi Workshops

Von Tobel Middle School students Jovany Castanon, left, and Marcelino Cruz practice during a mariachi workshop led by members of Mariachi Cobre at Cashman Field Center Thursday, May 17, 2012. The students and Mariachi Cobre, from Walt Disney World's Epcot Center, will perform in the Las Vegas Latin Chamber of Commerce Mariachi Festival at the Smith Center for the Performing Arts Friday, May 18. Launch slideshow »


WHAT: Mariachi and Ballet Folklorico students from Clark County School District participate in intensive classes and dress rehearsal taught by Walt Disney World’s renowned resident ensemble, Mariachi Cobre.

The festival culminates in a concert where the 90-piece Clark High School Symphony Orchestra joins Mariachi Cobre and student participants in a special performance.

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. today

WHERE: Smith Center for the Performing Arts, 361 Symphony Park Ave.

COST: $22

INFORMATION: 749-2000,

It is 9 a.m. and 250 Clark County students in matching canary yellow T-shirts are riveted to their instructor’s words.

They are told to put their cellphones away and leave them on vibrate, but before they comply, they hold the phones up to capture video of their teachers for the day, Mariachi Cobre, as they perform two songs to kick off a long day of instruction.

In 2004, at the first Mariachi Festival and Workshop, Mariachi Cobre came to work with the students from the Clark County School District’s mariachi program, which started in 2002 with 250 students from four schools.

And now Mariachi Cobre is back for the 10th anniversary of the program, which today boasts about 3,000 students from 16 middle schools and high schools.

On Thursday, the group, which is the mariachi band for Disney World’s Epcot Center, worked with 250 of the students who are considered ready to perform in public. Today, the students will take the Reynolds Hall stage at the Smith Center for the Performing Arts — a state-of-the-art venue that professionals clamor to book.

“I’ve heard that musicians, well-known ones, are calling the Smith Center and asking, ‘When can I get a date?’” Fernando Gonzalez, a music instructor at Sunrise Mountain High School, said. “For these kids to perform in a venue of that caliber is an opportunity of a lifetime.”

Mariachi programs are springing up in school districts across the country, said Randy Carillo, co-founder of Mariachi Cobre, which in addition to performing also dedicates much of its time to education. Once confined to border areas such as San Antonio and Tucson, mariachi programs have spread through the southwest and across the country.

Mariachi in Tucson

Tucson, Ariz., loves its mariachi music. The town was the original U.S. host of the International Mariachi Conference in 1983. Two legends in Tucson's musical heritage share their thoughts on the town's music education curriculum and tell how the future of Vegas' own mariachi program is being shaped by former Tucson residents. (2:40) -- (The Sun has gone on the road to listen to voters and talk to political leaders around the West. Reporters will examine the economic, cultural and demographic forces re-shaping the region as they drive to Denver for the first of the two major party conventions the Sun will cover.)

“We’ve been together 40 years,” Carillo said of the group. “Certain guys in the group are accredited educators, and they get a big charge out of the educational work. Other guys love performing, and they get a big charge out of being onstage and performing with symphony orchestras and that type of thing. Me personally, I love performing, and I love being able to have a classroom full of young people. Sharing with them what knowledge I have, what experience I have, it’s satisfaction on all facets.”

In 2002, Marcia Neel, the School District coordinator of secondary fine arts, recruited Mariachi Cobre alum Javier Trujillo, who ran a high school mariachi program in Tucson, Ariz., to start one here.

Neel retired in 2007 to start a music program consulting business. Recently, she advised the Nashville school district, which is starting mariachi, hip-hop and bluegrass programs to better appeal to its students.

“Clark County has the largest mariachi program in the country, without a doubt,” said Neel, who started the program here to better serve the growing Hispanic population and encourage greater participation in music. “It’s growing like crazy in the big urban districts and in some rural communities, too.”

Many of the students credited the mariachi program for making them more focused on their grades — they need a certain GPA to participate — and for getting them excited for school.

One of the songs the students will perform with the pros today is “El Viajero.” In one of the Thursday workshops at the Cashman Center, a group of about 30 practiced the lyrics.

“Yo soy ese viajero que va por el camino, por brechas y veredas buscando su destino,” they sang. (“I am that traveler who goes down the path, through clearings and trails looking for his destiny.”)

For mariachi students like Victor Noriega, a senior at Desert Pines High School, the lyrics could describe his time in school. Noriega, whose parents are from Mexico, was never much into sports and was not very active early on in school. Before he entered seventh grade, he had the chance to choose an elective and signed up for mariachi on a whim.

“I was the first one in my family to play an instrument, but I really liked it,” said Noriega, 18, who can sing and play the trumpet, guitarron (a form of bass guitar) and vihuela (a five-stringed Mexican guitar).

“I probably wouldn’t have done as well in school if it weren’t for the mariachi program; it’s the reason I go to school,” Noriega said. “It’s helped me with my leadership skills.”

Noriega started his own band, Mariachi los Charritos; books about 20 shows a month; and has even arranged for his group to travel to mariachi festivals in Tucson, Albuquerque and elsewhere.

Janet Casillas, a senior at Sunrise Mountain High School, will graduate second in her class this year and is headed to UNLV.

“It’s taught me responsibility. I have to be organized to practice, get my work done and do everything else. My grades improved,” Casillas said of the benefits of the program. “I used to be really shy, too, and now I have more self-confidence.”

Along the way, the students also learn a lot about Mexican and Latin American culture, as they are educated on the context and history behind the songs they perform.

“We cover a lot of bases,” Carillo said. “At a good music program in public schools, middle school, high school or the university level, you learn that music relates to other art, to cultural events, political events; it’s all intertwined. Any music program worth its salt will cover all of these things. Music is culture.”

The mariachi students are overwhelmingly Hispanic, but the program is open to all, and not every student is from a Spanish-speaking family.

Sixth-grader Allanee Griffin said she saw a folkloric dance performance at a local library and decided to join the group at Monaco Middle School. The ballet folklorico program started in 2005 as an extension of the mariachi program. Griffin and the other dancers will perform with the mariachis today.

“It’s not my culture, but I like how they dance and how the groups travel to different places,” said Griffin, 12. “Some of my friends who aren’t Latino, they were scared to join because they thought they would be picked on. I’ve been telling them all to join because I’m having so much fun.”

Trujillo no longer coordinates the program but stays involved. This year, when he found out that district budget cuts meant the annual Mariachi Festival and Workshop needed a sponsor, he used his position as chairman of the Latin Chamber of Commerce to rally support and get the chamber’s backing.

“I was just like these kids. I was 8 or 9 years old and wanted to be in Mariachi Cobre,” said Trujillo, who works for the Henderson Intergovernmental Relations Division. “Mariachi gave me the self-confidence and self-motivation to get my undergraduate and graduate degrees and later work in government. It gives you the self-esteem to go out and perform, which translates to professional life.”

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