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Mariachi band leader and teacher joins Luther Burbank Center staff

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When Jose Soto Jr. picked up the violin as boy in Mexico and began to learn how to play traditional mariachi music, he couldn’t have known exactly where that would lead him.

After he moved to California with his family at age 15, he started a mariachi club at Elsie Allen High School. After graduation, while studying at Sonoma State University, he started a summer mariachi camp for young beginners. That was four years ago.

Last year, he founded the Luther Burbank Center Mariachi Ensemble, a group of 31 students that performs locally. Last spring, he graduated from Sonoma State with a bachelor’s degree in music education. And last month, he joined the staff of Luther Burbank Center with the title of Music Specialist.

“I always thought that I was going teach at a middle school or a high school,” said Soto, 26, who lives in Santa Rosa with his wife Maria, a nurse.

“But when I started doing the mariachi, people from all over the community came, and we’re serving more people,” Soto said. “We have people from Santa Rosa, Healdsburg, Cloverdale and Rohnert Park, and I really love it.”

Soto conducts mariachi classes at Luther Burbank Center after school Tuesdays through Thursdays and on Saturday mornings. He also volunteers at a new mariachi class at Sonoma State University, working with Lynne Morrow, one his former teachers there.

“It’s their first one,” Soto said. “There are 14 students, and it’s going really well.” To Soto, the mission is share the cultural heritage of mariachi with both students and audiences, while boosting young musicians’ confidence in their performance skills. But for him, there is much more to it than that.

“It’s more about creating community with what we do,” he said. “I don’t consider myself a great teacher or the best musician. I feel that I love working with the kids. I never thought people would be so interested in playing mariachi music. It’s part of the culture, I guess. It’s part of who we are.”

Soto first met Ernesto Olivares, Santa Rosa city councilman and former longtime Burbank Center board member, while Soto was still a student at Elsie Allen High School, and Olivares has been an enthusiastic supporter ever since.

“It was interesting meeting with him because we were trying to figure out how to do something like this, and just by chance, here’s Jose. We started working with him at the LBC to start some kind of mariachi program for youth at the center. That’s how we started the summer camp program. We recruited Jose to be an instructor for us.”

The camps have proven successful, and the program drew more than 140 students this past summer, Soto said. The camp program began at Cook Middle School and later was extended to Cloverdale.

“It is a popular program, but I think it’s Jose himself as an individual. Once you get to meet Jose, and talk with him, he’s such a gentle, caring person, He’s charismatic,” Olivares said.

“Watching him rehearse and talk to his students, it’s almost like having a very close peer work with them,” Olivares added. “It’s not like an older adult. It’s somebody that the youth can really relate to.”

Anita Wiglesworth, program director and interim director of education and community engagement at Luther Burbank Center, sees Soto as an important addition to the center’s staff.

“We’re continuing to look at ways in which we can expand our mariachi program into different parts of the community,” she said. “We’ve been working with Jose for almost five years. We’ve been seeing such great results in terms of how the students are engaged in the work that we’re doing. We feel the education side of the center is every bit as important as the entertainment side, if not more so.”

You can reach staff writer Dan Taylor at 707-521-5243 or dan.taylor@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @danarts.

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