By Joshua Solís
Boyle Heights Beat
A full voice can be heard singing La Cucaracha, while little hands strum decorated guitars.
The simple and cheerful melody played by 7-16-year-olds fills the room.
Parents watch as director Richard Mata leads their children. There is a productive feeling in the air as the 13 students in an intermediate class at the Mariachi Conservatory work hard at learning and understanding the music.
The students are taking part in a tradition that is close to the hearts of many, especially Mata, who, along with his wife, Esperanza, began the non-profit conservatory in 2007 because of his love for mariachi music. Mata, who also teaches music at Salesian High School, and his wife and two daughters give beginning to advanced mariachi lessons throughout the week.
“The music of my people”
“I’ve just always enjoyed music and wanted to learn,” says Carlos Cruz, 17, who has been playing with the Conservatory for the past three years. “It’s the music of my people, and I find it important to know about my culture. I have a lot of family that played mariachi as well, so that pulled me into wanting to play more.”
Students can learn vocals, guitar, guitarrón, trumpet, harp or violin in classes held Tuesdays through Thursdays. Mata often has students play a section of a song, after which he provides extra explanation and guidance to those who need it. His wife, and their daughter, América, guide a violin class for six or seven students in a room next door.
Classes cost a nominal fee of $10, which Mata says he reinvests in the program. He and his wife donate their time because they love what they do.
Mata says his love of music led him to mariachi at age 14. He played in a program at Belvedere Middle School called “Mariachi Olímpico” which was started by the leader of Los Camperos de Nati Cano, a Grammy Award-winning Mariachi group.
Mata and his wife have been playing mariachi music together since 1996 in Mariachi Voz de América. Today, his daughters also play with the band. “All four of us belong in the same band we established when Angie was one-year-old,” says Mata. “Now they’re playing professionally and earning their own income.”
The husband and wife team started the Mariachi Conservatory because so many music programs in the state are underfunded, and Mata wanted to offer instruction year-round. They began with only seven or eight students, but now have close to 100.
“The seriousness started to emerge as soon as our students were at the advanced level, and they began to perform very well,” he says. “When students take it to that level, they see those results up on stage. Our program has shifted in a positive way.”
Cruz, who plays in the advanced group, says that in addition to teaching him music, the program has helped him personally. “It’s given me more confidence from having to just go out there and perform, and it might benefit me in the future career-wise,” he says.
Louis Espinosa, father of a 9-year-old student, is happy with what his son has gained. “Learning the music has actually helped his Spanish. He speaks more Spanish and more clearly, and he also has more comprehension of the language,” says Espinosa.
For others, learning and playing the music helps them feel more connected to their roots. “The music itself was introduced to me by my grandma,” says Mía Castro, 43. “I didn’t speak the language at all, but the music speaks for itself. It’s very passionate. Even if you don’t speak the language, you just kind of feel a connection to it.”
The Mariachi Conservatory performs with some other organizations, such as the LA Opera’s Zarzuela Project, and at various events. Mata says that the group only performs for organizations that benefit local communities.
Mata says mariachi helped him find his own identity, and he hopes to help others carry on the tradition.
“A lot of the songs talk about the history of Mexico and what they value. And a lot of it was beautiful, because they valued the land, the love they have for other people, especially family,” he says. “You begin to see all these elements in the songs once you begin to listen to it.”
Photo above by Ernesto Orozco.
The Mariachi Conservatory teaches its classes at Salesian High School 960 South Soto St. Information: themariachiconservatory.com.