One of the inspirations for Finding the Music was Mariachi Chavez, the student mariachi program at Cesar Chavez High School, which I wrote about when I covered education for The Record newspaper in Stockton. Tito Talamantes, was one of the group’s founding members.
I caught up with Talamantes—now a music educator—as he prepared to take a group of middle school mariachis to Washington, DC, a trip meant to showcase the power of the arts in education.
As a student at Stockton’s Cesar Chavez High, Tito Talamantes was a founding member of the school’s Mariachi Chavez.
A little more than a decade later, Talamantes has returned to the music room—this time as a teacher. Earlier this week, he was at Fremont Elementary, showing the students in his middle school ensemble, Mariachi Los Toritos, how to properly wear their moños, the jaunty bowtie that is a signature of the mariachi uniform.
“This is your moño,” he said.
“Not your mojo, your moño, and it goes on top of your collar. Like this. Así.”
The students in Mariachi Los Toritos range in age from sixth to eighth grade, and in less than a week, they will perform in Washington, DC, a visit meant to showcase Fremont’s accomplishments as part of the national Turnaround Arts initiative.
A collaborative project of the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities, the US Department of Education, the National Endowment for the Arts and other partners, the initiative uses arts education to improve attendance, parent engagement and academic achievement at some of the nation’s longest-struggling schools.
Fremont is one of ten California schools selected to participate.
“It allowed us to develop a K-12 arts pipeline for our students,” explained Cindy Wildman, visual and performing arts coordinator for the Stockton Unified School District. “We’re improving education through the arts.”
In kindergarten through fourth grade, students at Fremont receive 45 minutes of arts education each week, allowing them to explore dance, theater, music.
Starting in fifth grade, students select a fine arts pathway on which to focus—mariachi is one option—and receive 100 minutes of arts education each week.
“With mariachi, you have to keep your grades up, and you have to do good,” said Dalia, an eighth grader who plays guitar in Mariachi Los Toritos. “That’s why I’m out of trouble now.”
Cynthia, an eighth grader who plays vihuela, says mariachi has fueled her curiosity and interest in school. “It’s nice to have music and art because it introduces you to new stuff,” she said. “It keeps you focused and wanting to do better.”
Fremont Elementary serves about 930 students, most of whom come from low-income families. Many speak Spanish primarily.
The trip to Washington, DC, will mark the first time most of the Mariachi Los Toritos musicians have traveled very far from home.
They will be performing in front of music educators and advocates, but also students their own age—some of whom might never have heard mariachi before, Wildman reminded them.
“There’s a chance that, when Sara starts singing in Spanish, they might giggle,” she said. “Keep playing. You are exposing them to a different kind of music, a different kind of world.”
For Talamantes, mariachi also represents a chance for students to celebrate their own community and its culture.
“Just having an opportunity for kids in this community to have a place to come and find their identity … that’s what I hope to do with mariachi,” he said.
Mariachi Los Toritos (Are you proud of them, or what?) very generously allowed me to watch one of their last rehearsals before the DC trip. I made a little video. Check it out: