Five Things I Learned by Bringing Mariachi to My School District

Jaimie Abney-Giraldo • CommentaryNovember 2022 • November 13, 2022

SBO+: This is the first in a series of articles about mariachi and other genres of music to make our programs more inclusive and diverse. A few years ago, I was invited to adjudicate a mariachi festival and I was blown away by their musical excellence, the obvious enthusiasm, and the effectiveness of community outreach.

As music educators, we know the value of providing a variety of music education options for our students to get as many students as possible involved in music in our schools. Further, we know belonging to in music ensembles provides students with a sense of belonging in their school, an outlet for personal expression and creativity, and generally creates a healthier, more well-rounded and -adjusted student. Across the United States, one can easily find school band, chorus, and orchestra programs, however over the past 20 years, we are seeing an increase in the number of schools and school districts that are offering mariachi ensembles for their students as well.

There are many reasons why schools and districts should consider adding mariachi to their ensemble offerings. In this article, I will share with you five things that I have learned by bringing mariachi to my school district.

Mariachi builds connections. 

Mariachi is a phenomenal tool to help students and families make connections – to each other, to our schools, and to the greater community. We know involvement in ensembles and extracurricular activities provides students with an increased sense of connection and ownership over their education, and studies have shown a correlation to overall student success. We have seen our mariachi students are often students who are not involved in other activities, and by finding a school “family” in our mariachi group, these students have better attendance, improved academic success, and a decreased rate of behavior challenges.

More students want to learn to perform music than are enrolled in the traditional Big-3 (band, chorus, and orchestra) ensembles. 

Though we do see some crossover with band, chorus, and orchestra students in our mariachi ensembles, most of the students who enroll in mariachi are not otherwise engaged in other music education offerings. In speaking with these students, we have learned there were many reasons for their lack of interest in the big-3, with one of the most profound being their stylistic perceptions or disconnects with those offerings. Our school district is 56% Hispanic and has seen that rate grow consistently over the past two decades. We found out many of our students and families simply did not feel a connection with the band, chorus, and orchestra ensembles or the music they performed, however when we offered mariachi, many felt a new enthusiasm for joining a music ensemble because of the style of the music and the instruments that were included, which they felt represented and honored their culture and for which they had an existing frame of reference.

Seeing and empowering an underrepresented community has led to increased engagement and pride for our students and families.

In this era of data-driven decision making, we continually hear about the need to increase family and community engagement in our schools and mariachi can be a tool to help accomplish that. Our mariachi program has provided an opening and welcoming space for many of our families to become part of the school “team.”  Parents, extended family, and community members attend our mariachi performances in droves, whether a performance is part of a school concert or out in the community, because they are proud to see and participate in a school activity that reflects their culture. Many of our mariachi performances become bigger events and have added features, such as awards/recognitions or potlucks. By providing families and our community with these opportunities to engage in our school in a way they feel welcome, seen, and valued, we have noticed that more families are engaging with our schools in other ways too – attending parent conferences, open house events, and school events to support their student’s success. 

“If you build it, they will come.”  

We have found our school district is not the only organization in our community wanting to find ways to better connect with our large Latinx population. Our mariachi group receives more than 40 performance requests each calendar year for community/civic events, school/district events, and even corporate or private celebrations. In offering mariachi in our schools, we have noticed the students come to learn the music and have fun, often bringing friends; parents come to support their students learning about their cultural roots; whole families come to support and engage in celebrating this vibrant artform; and other community agencies come to us to help them better connect with our community. We have collaborated with our area’s professional symphony to develop a mariachi-themed pops concert, helped other local school districts start mariachi programs of their own, and even hosted an annual summer mariachi education workshop for music educators to help build a pedagogical foundation to support the demand in our area. We have built a program we are proud of, and the support and interest in what we are doing now comes from all directions.

Learning about mariachi music, history, pedagogy, and culture has helped to increase the cultural awareness and fluency in our instructors.

Human beings tend to gravitate to that which they know and understand. As a result, we sometimes make assumptions about things we see and hear based on our own cultural experiences and knowledge. Cultural awareness and fluency are constructs that invite us to reflect, recognize, and think beyond what our own cultural experiences have taught us in order to better understand, value, and interact with those from other cultures. It is about understanding the values and norms of other cultures, their histories and stories, and being able to make connections and interpret meaning through another’s perspective. In our school district, most of our music educators are Caucasian and of European descent. However, as we have moved through our own mariachi education and pedagogy journey, we have grown to have a deeper understanding and passion for Mexican and Latinx cultures, which has helped us to develop stronger and more meaningful relationships with our students and families.   

These are just a few of the things that I have learned by bringing mariachi to our school district. Are you intrigued by what you have read and interested in learning more about mariachi education and how to get started?  Here are a few resources you might find useful as you begin your own journey into the vibrant world of mariachi education:

Mariachi Music in America by Daniel Sheehy

Mariachi by Patricia Greathouse

Mariachi High video by PBS available on Amazon Video

The Music Teacher’s Guide to Engaging English Language Learners by Angela Ammerman

Jaimie Abney-Giraldo is a career music educator who is currently serving as the fine arts coordinator for School District U-46 (Elgin, IL), a position she has held since 2017. Prior to coming into this role, she served as a building-level administrator, a band teacher, and a mariachi instructor between 2004-2017. She holds her Bachelor of Music Education Degree with a focus on instrumental music from Illinois State University (2004), as well as a Master of Arts Degree in educational leadership from Concordia University Chicago (2011).

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