Religiously, there’s nothing more Mexican than la posada, the December street procession that re-enacts the Virgin Mary’s search for a place to give birth to Jesus. Musically, there’s nothing more Mexican than mariachi — that roaring mix of trumpets, violins, guitars and flamboyant sombreros.
Put them together, as Homestead's burgeoning Mexican-American community did this month, and you've got the perfect Mexican Christmas.
But the mariachi part was an exuberant debut: It was the first public performance by the city's new mariachi academy.
Last year, the Homestead-based Mexican-American Council (MAC) received a $60,000 grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation for the creation of the academy. It was part of the Knight Arts Challenge Miami.
The school is the first of its kind in South Florida — and it represents a milestone for Mexican-Americans here, since mariachi academies are usually a feature of large, well established Mexican communities like those in San Antonio and Los Angeles.
In Florida, Mexicans today are the third-largest Hispanic group behind Cubans and Puerto Ricans. According to 2014 U.S. Census numbers, close to 700,000 Mexicans live in the state, 150,000 in South Florida.
María Garza, president of the Homestead-based Mexican-American Council (MAC), and her husband Cipriano Garza envisioned the academy long before knowing about the challenge grant.
“The idea is to bring this type of folklore and history and knowledge to the children of migrant farm workers,” says María Garza. “But most importantly, is to give them the opportunity to know how to read and write music, to learn about the history of mariachi music, part of it is the roots.”
José Zabalgoitía, Mexico’s consul general in Miami, says the consulate has a good relationship with the MAC and has supported its efforts to go forward with the academy.
“We did some outreach to the Mexican community, and they were at the time looking for a grant from the Knight Foundation," Zabalgotía says. "So we mobilized the community in the area and got them many votes so they could get their grant going."
They came in second for Knight's People's Choice Awards, but they won the Knight Arts Challenge. After receiving the news in December 2014 that they'd won the grant, the council hosted a fundraiser this year to match the funds. Mariachi academy auditions were held for children between the 3rd and 8th grades in September. Every kid that showed promise to learn mariachi instruments — like the array of guitars that include the large bajo sexto and the smaller vihulea — was selected.
Originally, the class began with 50 children, but there are currently 38 due to the council’s rigorous requirements. “They have to have good attendance, and their grades in school must also be up to par,” says Maria Garza.
Elena Márquez is 16 years old and plays the violin. She thought she couldn’t be part of the academy because she’s in the 10th grade.
“I told my mom that at least I want to play an instrument, the violin, the cello, any instrument," says Márquez. "But, that’s when my mom talked to [the academy] and gladly, they actually accepted me. So, I feel happy about that.”
Elena’s brother Andrés, 11, says his experience at the mariachi academy has been “very well.”
“I learned how to blow on the trumpet and how to stand,” he says.
The students practice every Wednesday and Saturday in two housing units located inside the Homestead Housing Authority complex.
The Homestead posada culminated in a fiesta at the El Toro Taco restaurant on South Krome Avenue. The mariachi ensemble played the Mexican standard "Cielito Lindo," Jose Feliciano’s "Feliz Navidad" and the famous villancico (carol) "Mi burrito sabanero" while the crowd cheered them on.
“It was a really great performance,” says Celejina Tapia of Homestead. “I believe tonight’s show was impressive, especially seeing the age group of these kids and the different grade level that they’re in."
“They really did a great job, especially because they only rehearsed for a few weeks,” says Verónica Pérez, mother of Jimena, María José and Fernanda Ramírez, students of the mariachi academy. “I see my girls motivated by their father who is a mariachi musician and being more motivated for mariachi music instead of being glued to their phones or the TV."
For the community, the creation of a mariachi academy means a lot more than just teaching music. It’s an important means of conveying Mexican cultural roots to young people in expat communities like South Florida’s. It also offers those youths — many of whom come from low-income farmworker families — a positive outlet.
“You see tears coming down on some of the mom’s eyes when they were notified that their children, their kids were selected," says Maria Garza. "You see the pride in their faces and in the eyes of the fathers when they see their kid walking in and a musical instrument is given to them to play.... Our farm worker families earn less than $20,000 a year. And so, they have no additional funds to take their children to musical lessons or singing lessons or anything like that."
Zabalgoitía says that a lot of Mexican immigrants struggle to integrate into their new homes, while at the same time trying to keep “their own culture and their own values alive.”
The consul general adds that “mariachi can become the way to link it and integrate” those efforts.
The academy's students, meanwhile, have performances scheduled for February, March and April of next year.