The heirloom of Mariachi music passes down through the generations

Advanced student violinist practices on her birthday at Benito Juarez Community Academy

By Alexa Mencia

When the Chicago Symphony Orchestra welcomed Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlán, known internationally as the “World’s Best Mariachi,” last month, orchestra hall sold out.

Throughout the performance, audience members would let out a joyful, high-pitched yell in excitement—a signature of mariachi music known as a grito. The ensemble itself traces its history back more than 100 years, to 1897.

For the fully packed hall, Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlán finished out their set by inviting the city’s own Chicago Mariachi Project to join them on stage, a gesture recognizing that the next generation of mariachi musicians can come from schools in Pilsen and Little Village.

Watch and listen to the Chicago Mariachi Project (Alexa Mencia/Medill)

The Latino population, and the Mexican community in particular, has slowed in growth across the United States, according to a Pew Research Center report. But, Chicago has the second highest concentration of immigrants from Mexico and it’s evident in the vibrancy and growth of mariachi music.

The Chicago Mariachi Project offers mariachi music education programs for ages 8 through 18 in five different schools: Cooper Dual Language Academy, José Clemente Orozco Community Academy, Manuel Perez Jr. Elementary School, Little Village Academy and Benito Juarez Community Academy.

“Here in the Pilsen community, Cooper is a feeder to Orozco, Orozco is a feeder to Benito Juarez. So, the vision started of creating a musical bridge through mariachi music,” explained Álvaro Obregón, president and founder of Chicago Mariachi Project.

The project has expanded significantly since its inception three years ago, and now students from all over Illinois travel to take part in the program.

“We have kids from the South Side, North Side, and West Side of our city, and we also have kids that are in CPS schools and kids that are in either Catholic schools or even charter schools. Recently this year, we have a few kids from as far as Chesterton, Indiana and Hammond, Indiana,” said instructor Phillip Olazaba.

The Chicago Mariachi Project aims to elevate the art of mariachi music and push the boundaries of music education in Chicago, which starts by holding higher standards for student learning.

“When the students are learning this music, they’re not just learning a song. They should learn the history of Mexico through the music. They should know the geography of Mexico through the music,” Obregón said. “You know we’re so close and we’re so far from Mexico and so this music is very important for us to maintain our cultural traditions and roots but it means so much more than that, right?

And so that’s why we have really taken on this awesome responsibility of teaching it in this different context and I think it’s important because it allows the students to discover who they are,” said Obregón.

Photo at top: Advanced student violinist practices on her birthday at Benito Juarez Community Academy.