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Mariachi Joya – An in-depth look at the nation’s premiere mariachi ensemble

Angela Marlett • ArchivesFebruary 2022 • February 23, 2022

Mariachi Joya Director Stephen Blanco

“Ay, ay, ay, ay. Canta y no llores.” Sing and don’t cry. Sage advice given the trauma and disruption of the past two years. Advice that director Stephen Blanco and Mariachi Joya put into practice every day, building the nation’s largest mariachi program.

A world away from the glittering lights of the casinos, Las Vegas High School (LVHS) lies at the heart of a vibrant Latino community. With 2,700 students, it’s the city’s oldest high school, originally housed in a tent on the frontier city’s outskirts when it opened in 1905. With a student population that’s 73% Latino, LVHS is proud to host Mariachi Joya (“jewel” in Spanish), reflecting the community’s pride in its heritage.

While mariachi music might be unfamiliar nationwide, it has a strong following in the Southwest, reflective of the growing Latino population in western states. Native to the Mexican state of Jalisco, mariachi typically features four or more performers who sing and play traditional instruments including a high-pitched, five-string guitar called a vihuela, a bass guitar called the guitarrón, violins, and trumpets. The first student mariachi group was begun in 1961 at UCLA, and now numbers more than 500 nationwide. With more than 7,000 mariachi students, the largest of these programs is in the Clark County School District (CCSD) which serves Las Vegas.

Ensemble members with President Joe Biden at a campaign stop in Las Vegas.

The nation’s fifth largest school district, 46% of CCSD students are Latino, slightly ahead of the overall Las Vegas population (33% Latino). From its beginning in 2002 with just 250 students, the program has grown to roughly 7,000 students across 27 high schools and middle schools. At the pinnacle of that program shines Mariachi Joya and its director Stephen Blanco.

An audition-only ensemble, Mariachi Joya features 20 of the city’s finest mariachi students.

The ensemble’s stellar reputation has garnered national attention, culminating in a performance in President Joe Biden’s virtual inauguration parade, Parade Across America. Mariachi Joya first performed for Biden at a campaign stop in Las Vegas and later played in Vice President Kamala Harris’ 2021 America Back Together tour.

“It’s a milestone for Latinos. This means that Biden wants to represent us,” said Magelyn Cabral, harpist and vocal soloist. “These last four years, speaking for myself, I felt like the Latino community was very passed on and looked down upon. When we got the invitation, it felt very accepting. Our music is a big part of our culture and this definitely shows more than just a performance. It shows that we belong with everyone else.”

Mariachi Joya performed as part of Vice President Kamala Harris’ America Back Together tour.

“It was really a privilege,” Blanco added. “We spent 20-30 minutes speaking with President Biden about education the first time we performed for him. It wasn’t even me, it was my kids that were able to talk to him for that long.”

The group also represented its culture when it was invited to perform at the Mexican Embassy in Washington, D.C. in celebration of Hispanic Heritage Month, as well as competing at the 2021 Mariachi Vargas Extravaganza, the nation’s oldest and most prestigious mariachi competition.

Prior to accepting the teaching position, Blanco was largely unfamiliar with mariachi music, having grown up in Detroit. But his dad graduated from LVHS, and Blanco has reconnected to his roots while learning about mariachi culture and tradition.

“Getting this job and starting this program really helped me find myself in a way that I hadn’t before,” Blanco explained. “I still have family here, and I have made a new family here that I spend every day with. It’s really kind of become a way of life in a way that I never would have guessed I’d be doing this.”

Comprised of nine tracks, Mariachi Joya’s album was recorded remotely during the pandemic and is available on Apple Music, Spotify and YouTube.

For Blanco, directing Mariachi Joya has been a crash course in both mariachi culture and teaching. A graduate of Western Michigan University, he was recruited by an assistant principal at LVHS. “After graduation, I knew that I wanted to work outside of Michigan,” Blanco said. “I have always wanted to explore another place, and it was a natural time to do that. During my time of applications and interviews to schools across the country, I received a call from an assistant principal at Las Vegas High School. She had been given my name by a teacher I had studied with at a conference the year before, and had two open positions at her school. After the interview, I was immediately offered a position and given a choice; to teach orchestra or to help with band and start a mariachi program at the same time. I was craving adventure, so I chose to start a mariachi program.”

“The second I said yes to this job, I packed up my stuff, and within a week I was driving across the country to Las Vegas,” Blanco explained. “They had a big mariachi music educators conference here, and the purpose of that conference is to show what mariachi education looks like. I really modeled my program off of a lot of people that I met there. I did hours and hours of in-person research of other programs in the school district during my first year. I read every book there is about mariachi education. I figured out who is the best person to learn from. Who are these star teachers that have a great program? It was just a very intense year of doing that. Not that it has stopped, but it’s the tenth year of that. And every day I’m still learning, you know, and I’m never going to stop.”

His students contribute to his informal education as well. ”None of them had really been in mariachi before, but they certainly grew up around the music much more than I did,” he said. “Growing up in a Hispanic household, speaking Spanish at home and then coming to school, their perspective really helps me out. You know, they never have felt like they’re not getting a good education just because I’m not a great Spanish speaker… Oftentimes they’re like, ‘Hey, Mr. Blanco, this word would sound better pronounced this way.’ or ‘Mr. Blanco, not a lot of people like this song, but a lot of people like this song. …this song is what people play at parties. Nobody knows this one.’ A lot of that experience just comes from years on the job, but it also comes from listening to your students, which is super important, especially when you want them to want to be there.”

His ceaseless work on behalf of mariachi garnered him a 2022 Grammy Music Educator Award nomination. Out of 2,000 nominees, Blanco was one of 25 semifinalists. “My philosophy in music and really in life is just that if you work hard good things are going to come,” he said. “It’s a huge honor. I’m so happy for the exposure for Las Vegas High School and the mariachi program. The kids really deserve it,” Blanco said.

Mariachi Joya members also produced music videos to accompany their new album.

In a Grammy nomination video, Jeff Williams, CCSD coordinator for secondary music, said, “He’s simply an extraordinary teacher. Just three short years ago, Mr. Blanco began mariachi at Las Vegas high school, a brand new program. And in that time has developed one of the largest and musically most successful ensembles in our community. In fact, just this last year, Mr. Blanco and Mariachi Joya were able to put together a virtual performance that was featured in our state of the schools. And that same group was featured in President Biden’s inaugural tour of the United States as the Nevada representative. It’s a great pleasure to recommend him for the Grammy music educator of the year.”

Performance is the beating heart of any mariachi ensemble, so the transition to remote learning and the cancellation of in-person performances was especially hard hitting. “My students really lived for the performance. That’s why some of them even showed up to school, so they could go perform every weekend somewhere else. And so when that was taken away from them, you know, it was hard, it was hard for everybody. That’s what they loved,” explained Blanco. 

As an educator, he also had to adjust to the unique challenges of translating a hands-on learning experience into a remote format. “I think I really saw it take a toll on my beginners,” Blanco explained. “…as a teacher, the most difficult [thing] to teach a student is how to hold an instrument or how to sit properly over a screen. That’s not something that’s really ever been done before. Expectations also had to be adjusted. Obviously, there is no such thing as a group rehearsal when traveling. There isn’t technology that is accessible to us that allows that.” 

His previous schedule of full days teaching mariachi to entire classrooms morphed into a series of one-on-one private lessons and small group lessons. “I would give the students something to work on and they would come back, play it for me over the computer and I would give them things to fix or show them on my own instrument how I wanted it to sound. And that seems to work, but I don’t have time to do that with 200 plus students a day, because when I’m in a classroom, I can walk around and listen to all of them. That is something that we found super challenging in performance-based classes,” Blanco said.

His commitment to keeping students engaged led Blanco to an unexpected solution, recording and releasing an album, all while teaching and performing remotely. 

“One day I got a call from one of the students during the summer. They said, ‘You know what, Mr. Blanco, this year, we don’t even know if we want to do this anymore. We don’t know if we want to even enroll in school. We might do something else. Well, I just don’t see what the point is.’ A lot of the students were feeling depressed so we had to figure something out. What we decided to do was to record an album. That was the way that we found to still make the music happen.” 

With no background in music production, Blanco marshalled resources to facilitate recording and taught himself the fundamentals of recording and mixing to produce Joya, an album with eight tracks including “Tema Mariachi Joya,” an original song composed by Michael Sital. “We fundraised. We bought sound equipment. I took classes. I reached out to everybody I knew in the music and recording industry and learned as much as I could in a short amount of time because I also mixed the tracks of the entire album as well,” Blanco said. ”…that’s a whole ‘nother career that had to happen for a second. And going forward was certainly a new adventure for all of us. The students showed so much resilience during the recording of the album. It was a setback after setback after setback… We didn’t know if we were going to come back or be gone the whole year, so it was hard to plan. And so the entire album was rehearsed and recorded in seclusion. Most of the kids didn’t hear those songs together for the first time until they actually heard it on the CD because we weren’t permitted to rehearse together.”

Joya is distributed online via Apple Music, Spotify, and iHeart Radio among others. Videos in support of the album are available on the group’s YouTube channel at www.youtube.com/c/Vegas
Mariachi.

In part, recording an album was a natural outgrowth of Blanco’s efforts in marketing Mariachi Joya. From maintaining a strong social media presence to fielding interviews to designing the ensemble’s costumes, he’s been instrumental in keeping his students in the spotlight. “When I started the program, I knew that we were going to have to go big or go home because we are out of a school that is full of traditions,” he said. “This is the oldest school in Las Vegas. It’s not a school that is used to seeing change. And so bringing in one of the first new programs in a while, I knew we just had to make sure everybody knew about it. We have to make sure that everybody knew that it was a fun, exciting thing and something that we needed for our school. Marketing is a huge part of my job. Teachers are always going to have students placed into their classroom, but music teachers have to find their own students. If I want to have a job, I have to keep finding students that want to sign up for my class.”

To that end, Blanco has worked with district administrators to develop feeder programs in two local middle schools. “After the success of the program here, they decided to start a program as well. So, we’re all within two minutes of each other. These three schools, we’re really trying to build a mariachi empire over here where we can really work together and make some amazing stuff happen.” To that end, Blanco credits the support of administrators, both at the local school and district-wide levels. “Clark County School District has been named one of the best communities in America for music education. It’s no surprise to me that that’s the case. Never have I seen a school district support the arts more than CCSD. They really want our students to succeed. The arts have been proven decade after decade to ensure student success. If you have a strong arts program at your school, it goes hand in hand that you’re going to have a higher graduation rate. And that’s just proven all around the country,” he said.

Offstage, Mariachi Joya is making an important difference in students’ lives. In a district with a 81% graduation rate, Blanco touts the ensemble’s 100% graduation rate as a “graduation guarantee.” “If you are going to be a part of the mariachi program, you’re going to graduate. And we’ve been able to hold that steady for four years now. Every single person who goes through my program graduates. That’s something that’s very, very important to it. And also, the students are held to a very high standard. They can’t have excessive absences. They can’t have bad grades. They can’t have behavior issues.  You know, these are model students, everybody is looking at them. When you have a picture standing next to Joe Biden or Kamala Harris, you have to be worthy of that. And the students know their expectations, and they’re very good at upholding those expectations,” Blanco said.

In an online video, student Jessica Halili said, “This ensemble has made a measurable difference in my life and other students’ lives because three years ago, before mariachi actually became a program at Las Vegas high school, students like me never really had a place at school. And ever since mariachi became a program, it has motivated us to go to school and to keep trying in other classes as well. We are truly grateful for the opportunities and the performances we’ve had, especially for playing for the community and being able to perform for the mayor, representing Nevada in the presidential inauguration and meeting Joe Biden last year. And none of these things would have happened if this mariachi program didn’t start three years ago. On behalf of the nearly one thousand students at Las Vegas High School, Mr. Blanco changed our lives for the better, and we wouldn’t be where we are now without him.”

For educators looking to expand their program’s scope, Blanco offers this advice: “If you’re into it, the students are going to be into it. I’ve been looking forward to this program from day one, and I think that that reflects on the whole program. We all know that our students are going to model what we give. What your students are giving is so public. It’s really important that as a director, we’re giving the best that we can so they can give us the best that they can.”

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