Santa Fe Youth Symphony Association instructs a new generation of mariachi players




Santa Fe New Mexican


Santa Fe Youth Symphony Association instructs new generations of mariachi players By Ashley M. Biggers Cruz Gallegos steps forward and raises his violin bow. As the St. Michael’s eighth-grader lowers it, he and his fellow members of Mariachi Estrella launch into “Cielito Lindo.” His voice rings true through the rehearsal space as he sings to his “lovely sweet one” with lyrics that have echoed through Mexican — and New Mexican — culture since the song became popular in the 1800s. Gallegos grew up hearing songs like this one on the radio, so it was familiar to him when he joined the Santa Fe Youth Symphony Association ensemble in 2021. As the 10 middle- and high-schoolers practice the well-known refrains, SFYSA director of mariachi Tamarah Lucero offers occasional advice. “Use your hands!” she encourages, as the students timidly gesture before a wall of mirrors, rehearsing the full-body performance that mariachi requires. Their hands seem more comfortable strumming vihuela Mexicanas and gripping trumpets. Mariachi is a departure for several of the students, who are experienced in orchestra from participation at their respective schools or under the youth symphony association’s umbrella. However, it is less so for SFYSA itself, which has, perhaps surprisingly, instructed students in mariachi since 2004. With 200 students on its rolls, the association has better-known groups, including five orchestras, seven jazz ensembles, and two chamber music ensembles this academic year. However, mostly driven by student interest, the association includes mariachi in its repertoire as it trains new generations of musicians in Northern New Mexico. “SFYSA keeps mariachi alive for young musicians by giving our students diverse options for musical expression,” says SFYSA executive director Callie O’Buckley. “With high-quality teachers, opportunities for workshops and conferences, and the ability to perform often for our local community, we have seen the students become so inspired to put their all into these ensembles.” After the program was benched in 2018, Lucero helped relaunch beginner, intermediate, and advanced mariachi troupes. Mariachi Estrella, the advanced ensemble, performs once a month in the community, as it will do during the Art + Sol Festival Education Showcase on Saturday, Feb. 18, at 10 a.m. “Performing regularly just helps you develop as a musician. You develop stamina, polish your repertoire, and learn how to work as a team,” Lucero says. The professional violinist gigs weekly with Mariachi Tenampa between jobs teaching mariachi at Albuquerque Public Schools and for SFYSA. “Mariachi is music of the people. You’re there to entertain, to make people feel good, and to help people celebrate the best and hardest moments of their lives.” A high school program introduced Lucero to the genre, for which she’s found a lifelong passion. “I fell in love with it from the first rehearsal. It became my entire existence,” she says. “I think it was the connection to the music, the connection to who I am, and connecting to my roots, my culture. It took me to a different level musically. It felt like home.” Lucero grew up playing classical music before turning her talents to mariachi. She shares that experience with several of her students, including Emmarose Martinez, a junior at Santa Fe High, who has played in the orchestra with SFYSA. Martinez has found a connection with her paternal Mexican heritage through mariachi. “By singing, I’m learning to speak Spanish,” she says. Sasha Smucker, a ninth-grader at Santa Fe Prep, says she felt bored and anonymous in a larger classical orchestra. Smucker has enjoyed the challenge of learning a new style of music and pairing violin with singing. She’s also found it easier to make friends in mariachi’s small group setting. With no one conducting their performances and each instrument heard readily, the students must rely on each other. Bonds form quickly and strongly, they say. Musicianship and teamwork are just two of the lessons mariachi students take away from the group. “We hope that students walk away with a love for music, but also discipline, attention to detail, creativity, and maturity,” O’Buckley says. They have the opportunity to mature and develop independence during conferences, such as Mariachi Spectacular in Albuquerque, which the group attended in 2022. Seeing other professionals and hundreds of students from across the U.S. inspired them to hone their skills. According to Lucero, conferences like these demonstrate that mariachi is alive and well among new generations of musicians, even if the music isn’t the most popular genre on radio. These students have a different relationship with mariachi. “Maybe they heard it at their grandma’s house or a family gathering. They’re able to connect with what they know,” she says. “I hope these students find their passion the way I did and continue playing as they grow older and keep it going for younger generations,” she says. “I hope people can hear the beauty of mariachi music, and [we can] inspire people to listen to it more.” During a rehearsal, Lucero interrupts the players: “That has to start stronger!” She picks up her instrument and leads the ensemble into the next song. After a few bars, she sets it down and wanders among the students, occasionally adjusting fingers on strings. As Lucero mimes to remind students to keep their scrolls up, she offers one last note that’s both a response and an instruction: “!Viva!”