Youngsters learn about Hispanic heritage in Mariachi workshops

The harp is not common in most Mariachi ensembles, but Galilea chose to learn because she thinks it is “beautiful.” (Photo by Bailey Netsch/Cronkite News)

The most common instruments in Mariachi music is the vihuela, a type of guitar, and the trumpet. (Photo by Bailey Netsch/Cronkite News)

Juan is only six years old and plays the vihuela, just like his father.

(Photo by Bailey Netsch/Cronkite News)

The workshops experienced a huge spike in participation which brought more instructors to town. (Photo by Bailey Netsch/Cronkite News)

Children and teens who crowded into the library at Central High School picked up more than just musical notes at Mariachi workshops held recently in the Valley.

“That’s what I come for the most, to see them not only learn, but to appreciate what we appreciate too,” said John Albert Vargas, professional Mariachi musician. Vargas was a trumpet instructor at the workshops, along with four other members of his Los Angeles Mariachi group, Mariachi Garibaldi de Jaime Cuéllar.

The workshops are open to people of all ages but most of the participants were Hispanic children.

During the three day workshop the children were grouped by musical instrument and instructor.

Last year around 35 children participated. This year, the number quadrupled to just over 120 youngsters.

“My favorite part so far is when everyone gets together and everyone plays music, it’s a great experience,” Aaron Rivera,14, said. Rivera has playedviolin for four years and attended the camp along with his three siblings. His brothers Calvin, 10 plays the trumpet, and Juan, 6, plays vihuela, a type of guitar. Their sister Galilea, 8, plays the harp.

The children’s father, Juan Rivera, has played Mariachi since he was a child.

“It’s good for them, you know that way they are busy doing something, a good thing like music. It’s rewarding for them,” said Rivera.

The two youngest children, Galilea and Juan, have only been playing their instruments for two months. Although their personal experience is minimal, they practice at home with their dad and older brothers.

“Every time I read the notes when I play the harp the letters confuse me!” giggled Galilea Rivera.

The Rivera children learned about the workshops from their private instructor, Carlos Castameda, a local Mariachi player of 12 years and teacher at Rosie’s House in Phoenix.

“This is a great place for them to get to know other groups in the community and just to play along. And learn with great Mariachi musicians,” Castameda said. He knows his students are all “loving it so far.”

All the children got together and played the five songs they learned at a group practice on Friday, then performed at the Arizona Latino Arts & Cultural Center, ALAC, for their family and friends.This served as rehearsal for their second performance at Chandler Center for the Arts.

Although Vargas is a first generation Mariachi musician, he says most families have lengthy Mariachi traditions. They tell him, “My grandpa started my dad, then my dad started me, then now I’m starting my kid.”

From the overwhelming response at ALAC on a Friday night, one can tell the children have a lot of support. The kids did not all fit on the stage, so they performed in the middle of the room. Parents crowded around, holding their child’s sheets of music. Others shot video of the performance and sang along to songs they grew up with. One mother even had a bedazzled shirt that read “Mariachi Mom.”

“This teaches them traditions, generations of the same thing over and over. And of course, it is something beautiful like Mariachi music,” said Vargas. He performed alongside his students at ALAC. He gave them all highfives after the performance, and even took “selfies” with them.

Vargas plans to continue playing with Mariachi Garibaldi in Los Angeles, but also wants to continue teaching students when he returns home from Phoenix.

“Music has just taken over me, literally,” said Vargas.

During the workshops and at ALAC, he was surrounded by bandmates, parents, and children who felt the same way.

“It’s a beautiful thing to have in my life,” said Aaron Rivera, the oldest Rivera son.