WEST VALLEY CITY — On a recent afternoon, Esperanza Elementary's hallways pulsate with energy and slight chaos. Classes are over at the West Valley bilingual charter school, but students stick around for mariachi band rehearsals. Flurries of green — the color of the school’s uniforms — swirl around. And from these little orbits, the sound of trumpets, violins and guitars rise and fall. Behind that, in the school’s music room, a louder, more organized buzz of music can be heard.
Allan Moreno, the band’s director, looks concert-ready: angular, dynamically gelled hair, pointy black dress boots, black slacks, black vest, a red velvet blazer.
He’s been directing the students for a year, in which time the school’s mariachi program has grown exponentially. Normal mariachi bands have around a dozen members; that used to be Esperanza’s maximum turnout. Now, though, the school’s band has double that number in guitarists alone.
“It’s hard,” Moreno said, “but I love it.”
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The kids practice for two hours every day after school. Sometimes on Saturdays, too. And yeah, the kids can really play. Their repertoire is 30-plus songs and counting — a mix of traditional Latin music, contemporary American pop classics and newer hits. Most of them couldn’t play music a year ago.
“They’ve come in, kids not even being able to hear an instrument in tune, and now they know,” said Melanie Broadhead, the school’s choir director, who also leads the band’s singers. “And the first couple of performances we had, everyone was looking at the floor. Now they’re starting to interact with the audience — they’re looking up, they have a lot more confidence. It’s been really fun to watch.”
Those performances are becoming pretty frequent. The students have played at festivals, at halftime of a Real Monarchs game, and will be at the Utah State Capitol Building on February 12. They don’t look as fancy as Moreno during this recent rehearsal, but once it’s show time, the students clean up: matching red bow ties and sashes, embroidered black coats, the whole mariachi get-up.
Getting them to this point — not simply wearing such historically Mexican attire and playing such traditionally Mexican music, but doing so proudly — is perhaps the program’s biggest accomplishment.
“It is difficult for kids to express their culture when they live in a dominant culture like the United States; sometimes they say it’s embarrassing,” said Eulogio Alejandre, Esperanza’s principal.
Jessica Zarate, an eighth-grader who returns to the school for mariachi rehearsals, attested to that fact: “It gives us an opportunity to learn and be more aware of our Spanish culture.” Eddy Flores, one of the band’s guitarists, said he didn’t like guitar until he saw the band playing. He started taking guitar lessons, joined the band, and now he loves it.
For the guitarists, most of it is basic strumming. Occasionally, though, they delve into fingerpicking some pretty intricate melodies. The violins, trumpets and guitars will trade melodies in various call-and-response sections. They are beginners, but undoubtedly capable.
“It’s a lot of work, but they are willing to learn,” said Ysenia Delgado, a piano teacher at Esperanza who assists the band’s accordion section.
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Allan Moreno hasn’t been the typical elementary school bandleader. He used to play guitar for La Onda, a popular and award-winning Latin band, but when Alejandre asked him to help out, Moreno only played guitar and wasn’t well-versed in mariachi music. Since then, he’s has learned a number of other mariachi instruments. He also delegates a lot of the teaching to his students — one major reason for the band’s exponential growth. Moreno will film YouTube tutorials for the students to use at home, but he’s not in front of the camera — instead, it’s the students doing the playing/instructing. He’ll often teach the band’s most proficient players, then have those students teach the rest of the section mates.
“And people just don’t believe that little kids can do this,” Alejandre noted. “And I will honestly tell you that if I hadn’t seen them, I probably wouldn’t have believed it either. You have to see it in order to believe it.”
What’s happened with the school’s band is the very reason Alejandre, a longtime Utah educator, came to Esperanza (he commutes from Ogden every day). Within Esperanza’s charter is the line, “All students will learn to play chess and learn to play the violin.” Though Alejandre isn’t a musician — he’ll bring up this point often in conversation — he’s wanted a robust Latin-focused music program in Utah schools for practically his entire career. Now it’s a reality.4 comments on this story
He’s hoping mariachi music is just the start. Eventually, the principal said, he wants them to develop a student norteño band (Latin-influenced polka), and from there a full orchestra. Las Vegas hosts a mariachi festival each year, where student mariachi bands from all over compete. Alejandre keeps that in his sights. As he’s learned, having such willing students and instructors goes a long way.
“They literally will make people cry when they play a song. You will see people wiping away tears,” he said. “They’ve made me cry a hundred times already.”