Sonoma County mariachi students encouraged to explore Mexican tradition, history

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Latino Life

In this special edition during Hispanic Heritage Month, we honor the rich and nuanced heritage nurtured by all the generations in our Latino community and the value it brings to the lifestyle of Sonoma County. Click here to read our other Latino Life stories.

Dressed in a black mariachi uniform, Cali Calmecac Language Academy student Dither Ochoa, 12, sang “Atotonilco,” a traditional mariachi piece, his voice booming across the Luther Burbank Center for the Arts’ main stage.

Behind him, an ensemble of musicians sang and strummed along to the song, also dressed in the same traditional mariachi garb. From the second row, Dither’s mother, Lilia Ochoa, a Rohnert Park resident, recorded the performance on her phone.

“He’s really proud of mariachi and that it runs in the family,” Lilia Ochoa said after the performance, adding that both her father and grandfather played in mariachi bands. “I’m really shocked he was singing.”

The Aug. 24 performance showcased the talent of Ochoa and 31 other advanced students from the center’s free summer camp, which started four years ago.

The three-week program is led by Jose Soto Jr., a recent music education graduate from Sonoma State University who advocated for the camp after starting a mariachi club at Elsie Allen High School.

Soto joined his first mariachi at age 10 while he still lived in Tapalpa, a small town in the southern part of Jalisco, a Mexican state. Like many 10-year-olds, he hoped to follow in the steps of his father, a first-generation mariachi player.

“I grew up hearing that,” Soto said of the music. “If you want to be a mariachi, you have to join the group. So, that’s what I did.”

He continued his interest in mariachi when he moved to Santa Rosa from Mexico at age 15, eventually playing in a mariachi band with his father and brothers to make extra money during the weekends. The experience has helped prepare him for his current role as the LBC’s mariachi camp director, where he oversaw about 170 students this summer, he said.

The program has seen notable success locally, with increased enrollment numbers year after year since starting in 2014. The program branched out to Cloverdale the next year.

While the young musicians learn how to play and sing traditional mariachi instruments such as the trumpet and violin, eventually learning to play songs from memory, they also study the genre’s origins and significance within Mexican culture, Soto said.

Soto instructs his students to research a famous mariachi band or well-known singers, often as a means to build connections between his students and their parents.

“I say, ‘Let’s see if we can communicate with our families a little bit more and find out what they know about mariachi,’ ” Soto said. “What do they know about their history?”

As students returned year after year, Soto decided to form an advanced mariachi group that practices year-round, three times a week. They were invited to play for Los Cien, a Latino business and community group prior to their community performance later that night, and were joined by Mariachi Voces de Jalisco, a Southern California-based group that won second place at the National Mariachi Festival in Los Angeles in early August.

The nine-member ensemble drew cheers and stomps of support from the packed audience with songs like Vicente Fernández’s “Hermoso Cariño” that Friday night.

“They’re doing what we want to be doing,” Soto said of the group.

Mariachi music is making its way to Sonoma County youth and young adults in other ways, with both Sonoma State University and Santa Rosa’s Montgomery High School teaching the genre this semester, Soto said.

Latino Life

In this special edition during Hispanic Heritage Month, we honor the rich and nuanced heritage nurtured by all the generations in our Latino community and the value it brings to the lifestyle of Sonoma County. Click here to read our other Latino Life stories.

Sonoma State University started their first mariachi class this August, where students will explore stories about immigration through mariachi music, Soto said. The class, which runs Monday and Friday afternoons, is taught by Lynne Morrow, the school’s vocal and musical theater director, though Soto has offered to help teach students about the genre’s history and how to play instruments.

In Santa Rosa, jazz band students at Montgomery High School will continue incorporating mariachi into their curriculum for a third year, said Erik Ohlson, the band’s former instructor.

He bought beginner’s mariachi lesson books for a few interested students two years ago when the school had enough students that could play the stringed instruments typically seen in mariachi bands, like the violin.

The book, which came in both English and Spanish, served as a launching pad for the group of students, about half of which are Latino.

This year, they hope to have three guitarist, three violinists, two cellists and four trumpet players that work on mariachi within the jazz band, if everyone’s schedules allow.

“The goal is to keep building it every year until we can make it a separate class,” Ohlson said. “I feel like if we’re not teaching music from a whole lot of different cultures, we’re not showing that music has value.”

You can reach Staff Writer Nashelly Chavez at 707-521-5203 or nashelly.chavez@press democrat.com. On Twitter @nashellytweets.

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