Daniel Herrera first started playing mariachi music at the age of ten on an $80 violin from a pawn shop. He had begged his dad to buy it for him after seeing a youth mariachi group perform in the San Fernando Valley.
“I was just kind of mesmerized,” he said. “I just thought, at that age, that it was one of the coolest things ever,’”
Now, almost 28 years later, Herrera’s feelings towards the music have not changed and he is passing on his love of mariachi as an instructor with the Santa Monica Youth Orchestra’s (SMYO) Mariachi Program. SMYO has worked with SMMUSD since 2019 to provide mariachi classes to elementary and middle school students in the district, and recently launched its first class at the high school level.
The class, which officially began in September and currently has 14 enrolled students, allows students to earn two college credits per semester through a partnership with Santa Monica College (SMC). Willie Acuña, a professional mariachi player with 25 years of experience and one of the SMYO instructors working specifically with the high schoolers, feels this makes it an especially valuable opportunity.
“I think this is a pathway for some of these kids to be introduced to ‘okay this is college curriculum,’” he said. “It’s not just a club, it’s a pathway into college.”
Beyond that, he said it’s a way for Latino and non-Latino students alike to learn more about mariachi music and the culture surrounding it.
“It gives people a chance to sort of either dive into their heritage or, for someone from outside of the culture, to experience the culture more intimately and have a better understanding of it,” he said. “I think it’s really beneficial to this community to have a program like this.”
Mariachi, which originated in Mexico centuries ago, is prevalent and popular in Los Angeles. However, prior to this program, Acuña felt opportunities for young people to learn about the genre were lacking in the Santa Monica area.
“With Los Angeles being as huge a place as it is, and the impact that mariachi has on the city, I think the Westside of L.A. was kind of missing that,” he said.
Since Mariachi classes were introduced at the elementary and middle school level several years ago, the reception from the community and students has been overwhelmingly positive. Instructors said students of all ages have meaningfully engaged with the music, asking questions and requesting to learn specific songs.
At a recent class, Herrera said he took a moment to reflect with students on the value and context of the music they were learning.
“I wanted to remind the students what this music means to people, particularly to Latino immigrants in the United States, in California,” he said. “It’s not simply just music to enjoy or dance to – obviously it is all of those things – but it also has an element of nostalgia, of homeland, of longing, that is really meaningful to these people, to a lot of these student’s parents.”
Gracie McAleer, another SMYO instructor for the program, said she can see this reflected in parents’ reactions to their children’s performances.
“It’s so great to watch the families, how thrilled they are to see their kids learning this music that is meaningful to them,” she said. “They get so excited – singing from the crowd, too.”
The students are in high demand for performances, according to SMYO Director of Operations Olivia Thompson Bessett, who said the elementary and middle school groups performed close to a dozen times last spring, with more already scheduled for this year. The new high school class has several upcoming performances on the books as well.
The mariachi classes are free to SMMUSD students and Thompson Bessett said they provide free instrument loans to help make the program accessible to any student who wants to participate.
“One of our most important tenants is providing access and eliminating barriers for students of any background,” she said.
More information can by found on the SMYO website at https://www.santamonicayouthorchestra.org.