It’s a sticky summer afternoon when we step into the un-air-conditioned hallways of the former Dow Elementary building in the Old Sixth Ward, home to Multicultural Education and Counseling through the Arts, or MECA. Snippets of music can be heard as children of all ages, some carrying instruments almost as big as they are, wander about, looking for their classes.
After doing a bit of wandering ourselves, sweating in the stuffy heat, we find the classroom we’ve been searching for, opening the door to find both the sweet relief of A/C and three middle-schoolers, all violinists. Guided by teacher Joaquin Rodriguez, they’re dutifully practicing their scales.
“Práctica, práctica, práctica,” Rodriguez exhorts his students. “Otra vez.”
The violinists launch into another, somewhat unenthusiastic, attempt. But when a 13-year-old boy carrying a vihuela, a small, guitar-like instrument with five strings, arrives, scale practice comes to an end. The students perk up, as it’s time for the real work to begin: mariachi. They jump into a vibrant, toe-tapping exercise, led by the vihuelista’s strumming and Rodriguez’s singing.
Then it’s time for a song, “Cariño.” Rodriguez encourages violinist Valerie Salmeron to sing, something all of his students are expected to do. The shy 12-year-old initially resists. “No, no, no,” she says, anxiously tapping her bow.
Understanding but no-nonsense, Rodriguez says, “‘Cariño.’ Ready? Vámos.” Salmeron sings softly at first, but her voice grows louder, and soon her fellow students are harmonizing with her.
Scenes like this one are common at MECA, which started its mariachi program 27 years ago as a young organization serving low-income and other disenfranchised communities operating out of neighboring St. Joseph’s Church. The nonprofit grew and grew, and finally moved into its own building in 1993.
Over the years, MECA has helped create mariachi programs at Crockett Elementary, Hamilton Middle School, Heights High School, Northside High School, Sam Houston High School, and HSPVA, in addition to running its own program, whose four mariachi teachers generally teach students how to play by ear first, then read music.
“My goal was so that the schools would have permanent programs,” says executive director Alice Valdez. “There’s more permanence when the school takes active responsibility and makes it as important as the band or the orchestra.”
MECA’s advanced mariachi ensemble has received awards at national competitions, been invited to perform across the world, and even performed at the 2002 Winter Olympic Games. Students are often asked to accompany professional groups on album recordings, and some go on to successful careers in the field. Many more study the art form at Texas universities and end up teaching it, often returning to the same schools where MECA launched programs. “Many of our kids are now our competition,” Valdez says, laughing.
Young mariachis can make good money performing on the weekends, too, enough to help pay for college, or just as a side hustle. “The students have a lot of gigs,” Valdez says. “It’s lucrative.”
But the main goal is to get students “to become disciplined and get them to graduate from high school and go on to college,” Valdez says. “The whole concept was that the arts help the children study better, understand better—it helps them to discipline themselves. A kid who has to sit there for two, three hours practicing their violin, it’s going to pass into their academic life.”
Then there's the love they develop for mariachi music itself. Salmeron, an incoming seventh-grader at the Mandarin Immersion Magnet School, used to play classical violin before joining MECA two years ago. Mariachi drew her in immediately. “It’s fast,” she says. “You can really feel the music.”
And on our visit, we do. As class ends, Rodriguez once again reminds his students to practice. The kids pack up their instruments, and we venture once again into the humid hallway, softly humming “Cariño.”