By Barbara Zaragoza / South Bay Compass
National City expects between 10-15,000 people to join in the fun. Last year they had 11,000 people, making it one of the largest mariachi events in San Diego County.
This year, National City has invited mariachi students from throughout the United States and Mexico. At least 10 groups will compete and professional judges will hand out awards based on their stiff rubric. The festival — which is free to the public — will also include ballet folklorico, a live Latin Band, carnival game booths, a beer garden and food.
What’s So Special About Mariachi?
Mariachi folk music is very much bound with Mexican national identity. Dating back to the nineteenth century in the Mexican state of Jalisco, the music was popularized in urban settings thanks to the new radio broadcasting technology in the 1920s.
Today mariachi music strikes an important chord here in the South Bay where fifty percent of the population is of Hispanic, usually Mexican, descent. The music is becoming especially popular with the youth thanks to a growing number of mariachi music programs.
Ahead of the Mariachi Festival, about 200 students participated in mariachi workshops at the University of San Diego, led by USD Mariachi Director Serafin Paredes. The students came from Nevada, Texas and Mexico to compete for entrance into National City’s mariachi competition.
Originally from Mexico, Serafin Paredes grew up in Ventura County and came down to San Diego State University in order to study music. He graduated from SDSU as a music major with an emphasis on classical guitar. He then went on to teach at San Diego High School.
During that time, he heard about the popularity of the mariachi program in Tucson, Arizona. While visiting there, he saw how much students wanted to be involved with something from their culture and he started a mariachi program in San Diego city schools. Nowadays, Serafin also teaches a mariachi class every Thursday at USD. He has held the annual mariachi workshops for the last twelve years for high schoolers, and more recently for college students. This year they had 10 mariachi groups at the workshops. Four of those groups were selected to perform at the upcoming National City Mariachi Festival.
More importantly, Serafin is part of a larger group of educators in San Diego who are putting mariachi on the music education map. He says, “Students that get involved in it, they would never be involved in an orchestra or a marching band, but they see mariachi music and that’s part of their culture. All of a sudden they decide, ‘Okay I’m going to pick up a violin.’ But if they see an orchestra playing, they might never have the desire to pick up a violin and play, but they hear the music they’re familiar with and it’s a calling for them.”
For the mariachi workshops, Serafin invited special guest Heriberto Molina to talk to the students about his career as a mariachi performer:
The First Mariachi Music Degree
Turns out, within the next generation you’ll be seeing music departments that offer degrees in mariachi. At least, that’s the hope. Serafin has worked with another pioneer in the field of mariachi music education: Jeff Nevin.
FASCINATING FACTOID: the South Bay is home to the first mariachi music degree program in the world.
Jeff Nevin, a gringo from Tucson, Arizona, developed a love for mariachi at the age of fifteen. At that time, he knew no Spanish, but he was playing the trumpet in school and a friend asked him to join the mariachi.
He fell in love with mariachi. Jeff went on to get a bachelor’s degree in music composition from the University of Illinois. He then got a Master’s degree from Arizona State University and a Ph.D. from UC San Diego. At UCSD, he learned to be a composer, trumpet player and mariachi player. Today, he plays the trumpet with the San Diego Symphony, being called in as an extra when they need somebody.
For his Ph.D. at UCSD, he did two things: for his qualifying exams he wrote a book on mariachi music. His dissertation was then a concerto for a mariachi orchestra because, as a composer, you have to write a new piece of music.
At about the time Jeff was ready to graduate, the Presidents of Southwestern College and Sweetwater School District both wanted to develop a program to help kids stay in school and go to college. They felt mariachi would help do this in the South Bay. The President of Southwestern College talked with Jeff and they agreed to establish a mariachi program. Jeff started in 1998. During that time, they also created the Mariachi Scholarship Foundation.
Jeff insisted that the program at Southwestern College be comprehensive. He wanted to have a history of mariachi class, violin lessons, guitar lessons, and voice lessons. He was willing to create a whole program for Southwestern, knowing that nobody had ever done it before. He established what today is an Associates Degree in music with a specialization in mariachi.
The degree was officially approved in 2004 by the Community College Chancellor’s office. The process was challenging. Jeff had to design the degree, discern job opportunities and more. It also wasn’t easy to get students to transfer into a four-year university music program because there still aren’t many mariachi programs. As a teacher, Jeff needed to prepare them to be good musicians in general.
Debates rage among music professors today. One camp maintains that if you play mariachi, you shouldn’t play any other form of music because it will taint your ability to play mariachi — And vice versa. — If you play orchestra music, you shouldn’t become good at mariachi because it will taint your orchestra skills. Jeff thinks that’s bunk. His camp believes that, like learning more than one language, everyone should learn more than one type of music.
Jeff has seen great success for his students so far. Four have played in the famous Mariachi Divas who have won two Grammy awards and have been nominated a few times. Three of his students have gone on to get Bachelor’s and Master’s in music education. Right now, he has about ten students working on their Bachelor’s degrees.
As Jeff’s students fan out throughout the country and spread their enthusiasm for mariachi music, we’re going to see an increase in its popularity throughout. There’s an energy to the music. A vibrance as well as a distinct cultural heritage. Clearly, mariachi speaks to many students. Since Jeff and Serafin started there programs, about twenty mariachi programs have sprung up throughout San Diego.