By Lucia Espino
When some people hear the word mariachi, they picture a drunk Mexican singing out of tune and playing an instrument “by ear.” They may not consider mariachi members as real musicians.
Those misconceptions are being put to rest 5:30 p.m.-8:30 p.m every Wednesday in Room 204/207 at Main Campus, where students and staff with little experience dedicate time to the study of Mariachi.
As Mariachi Jaguar, the university’s recently launched music club, arrived for practice March 27, Hispanic and Anglo students of different ages came together and misconceptions that mariachi is “just for Mexicans” disappeared.
Juan Ortiz, Mariachi Jaguar’s music director and founder of San Antonio’s Campanas de America, didn’t waste time when he arrived for practice. He began with music theory and then moved into playing major scales in different tempos making sure everyone was playing the right notes. No student was left behind.
“We are not building this group to start professionally; we are doing this for the purpose of enhancing what might be the music program for A&M (San Antonio),” Ortiz said.
Eric Lopez, head of the School of Education, also serves as Mariachi’s Jaguar’s adviser.
The idea of creating a mariachi group, Lopez said, came directly from university President Maria Hernandez Ferrier.
Lopez said the administration is working on making it a credit-earning class and later a degree in music education with emphasis in mariachi.
Playing without fear
During a recent rehearsal, when communications senior Vanessa Sanchez struggled with music notes while playing violin, Ortiz took the time for a one-on-one lesson with her.
Sanchez joined the club because “music is my life, my religion, my passion,” she said. Her career plan is to be a journalist and write about music, but is disappointed the university does not have a degree program to support that.
Ortiz, who has been teaching music for more than 35 years, patiently explained how every note has a specific finger placement on each string, until Sanchez was able to put them together.
For English junior Megan Tadej, the last time she held a flute was more than four years ago. She never thought about playing mariachi.
“I didn’t think flute could be in mariachi,” she said, adding that she wanted to play again and the mariachi club was an option.
Students are learning basic music theory that will later be put together to make “musica ranchera,” he said.
In a recent interview with The Mesquite, Lopez said reading music is the basis for any strong mariachi, but they also need to “feel” the music. “It is a style, and you don’t pick up style, you just feel.”
The group tried one more time. While playing, Ortiz realized how Sanchez was playing low as if she didn’t want to be heard if she messed-up. Then, Ortiz could be heard in the background shouting, “Be aggressive! Don’t be afraid.”
Remember how as kids we played with not a worry in the world, as if no one was listening, he asked. Now play with that same attitude, he urged, and don’t fear the instrument.
With humor he ensured the group’s mistakes will not be posted on any social media so they had nothing to be afraid of. “The only thing that might be damaged is your pride,” he continued.
Ortiz also teaches at Palo Alto and Northwest Vista colleges, but he decided to be part of Mariachi Jaguar because “there is really nothing, quite like being part of creating a program,” he said.
Lopez, who has been playing music since he was 7 years old said, “When I was younger (while playing) I had the habit of sticking my tongue out,” so he practiced in front of the mirror to make sure he wouldn’t do it.
He said showmanship is part of being a mariachi musician, something Ortiz is also teaching students.
At one point during practice, Ortiz asked the group to stand in front of the classroom and “get in position”. Students formed a semicircle as if they were going to perform, and played a song called “Cariño.”
After playing the song a couple of times he told them it was not only about playing in front of an audience, but also, about entertaining.
When it comes to singing, Ortiz treats the voice as another instrument, and with every lyric he takes the opportunity to teach students about mariachi’s culture.
While playing “Cariño,” Ortiz explained the meaning of the song to the group. It means affection, and talks about how difficult it is to tell someone you have love feelings for them when you don’t even know how you fell in love in the first place.
Ortiz said just because someone looks Hispanic or has a Hispanic last name, doesn’t mean that they speak Spanish; this is why he describes every song they play.
Lopez couldn’t agree more. He said things are intergenerational now and a lot of the younger generations don’t speak Spanish anymore, and maybe their parents or grandparents don’t speak English, but yet, mariachi music brings them together.
“I see mariachi as a cultural nutrient,” he said. “It brings generations that normally wouldn’t come together, together.”
Ortiz said, for now the main goal is to be able to perform a song for Ferrier so she can see the progress Mariachi Jaguar is making.
Ortiz allows students to borrow his instruments, in case they don’t have their own.
This is the perfect time to join the club for those who want to learn how to play an instrument or even another language.
“We are all learning together,” Ortiz said.
He encourages students to take any art class they can and use it as a distraction and relaxation time.
“Nothing strengthens the academics like the arts,” Ortiz said.