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Mariachis progress quickly

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By Don Pace

They seem like they’ve been performing for years. But it’s only been a few months.

Children in the 21st Century mariachi after-school program have already wowed a crowd at Fiesta de la Hispandad and are now heading to a big show in Tucson, Ariz., for the International Mariachi Contest in a few weeks.

Ben Lucero and Emily Maestas, the co-directors of the young mariachi group, have had extensive musical careers themselves.

“Most of our kids had never picked up an instrument before, and before I knew it, they were playing songs. It just amazed me. Before the Fiesta de la Hispandad concert some people thought we would only play one song, but the kids played three songs. I said at the pace they are going, they will be playing eight songs by the end of May,” Lucero said.

Lucero said the enormous progress leads him and Maestas to believe that the mariachis are ready to compete in the international competition in Tucson.

“The thing I love about working with the young kids is they are not embarrassed to pick up a mic and start singing. It doesn’t matter whether they are in tune or off tune because it comes from the heart, and in their innocence, they give it their all,” Lucero said.  

Lucero said kids are learning music and engaged in after-school activities because 21st Century directors Theresa Chavez and Michell Aragon wanted to expand the program from Sierra Vista Elementary to all elementary schools in the district. He said with this program, everyone wins because as these kids grow up and move along in school, they will join other mariachi groups within the school district.

Los Niños fourth-grader Jaiden Benavidez said she had never even picked up a musical instrument before and said she feels comfortable playing in a group that won’t laugh if she makes a mistake. She said her teachers are always showing her how she can improve her trumpet playing.

“I decided to play the trumpet because after I went to a lot of mariachi concerts, there were trumpet players, and they sounded so pretty, so I wanted to play it too,” Benavidez said.

Classmate Adriana Gonzales said she likes playing the trumpet because her dad likes the instrument and she notices how it much it adds to the music.

Joshua Sandoval is one of the few kids in the group that has a musical background and is an old pro at getting an audience fired up and rocking to his music. He was one of the soloists at the recent Fiesta de la Hispanidad, wowing the crowd and looking like a young Elvis singing and strumming his guitar.   

He said the thing he likes best about being in the group is experimenting with a variety of musical instruments.

Rique Ashe started with the 21st Century Group seven months ago and said she is having a lot of fun.

“I chose the guitar because my dad is in a band and one of the band members is like my brother and he plays guitar, so that’s why I chose to play it. The best part of being in the band is learning how to play the music and having fun,” Ashe said. 

Teacher Maestas said she started her musical career when she was tiny, and said that’s one reason she can relate to the young ones she now teaches.

“I grew up with a musical family; my father played guitar and my mom played accordion, so they had a band since we were little. My brother, Richard, has traveled all over the world, and I was one of the first females in the New Mexico National Guard band.”

Maestas and her all girl group traveled to Europe last summer and she currently plays with the Highlands University jazz band.

Maestas said she is impressed with how fast her students have learned.

“We were happy that many of the kids chose different instruments to play. They started picking up the pieces really, really fast as we started introducing fingerings and patterns. We were only expecting to do only one or two songs this year, and we’re already on our fourth song, so by the end of May we should have a really nice repertoire,” Maestas said.        

The Los Niños Parent-Teacher Organization is one of the big contributors for the trip to the international competition, donating $1,500, so that these beginners can get a taste of competition and see the best of the best in the field. There will also be workshops and plenty of venues where they will soak up the excitement and knowledge that will make them the future musical stars of Las Vegas.

Others that are contributing money for travel are the Elks, Eagles and private donors. Anyone wishing to help with the expenses can contact Lucero at Los Niños Elementary at 454-5720.