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Connecting Community and Tradition at Denison High School
By Ruben Newell
4/21/2014 9:13:00 AM

I’m a selfish person. Maybe “selfish” is too strong of a word - maybe it’s more about self-preservation than being selfish.  Either way, mariachi is a part of the Denison instrumental music program for somewhat selfish reasons.

I took the job in Denison in 2009.  I moved here from another 3A school, where I had a fairly successful program with great students.  A lot of people told me they didn’t understand what I was doing, making a lateral move like that when I appeared to be comfortable and doing well where I was already at, but something was pushing me to Denison.  I don’t know if it was the sense of adventure of running a different program or the high quality middle school program.  Or maybe it was that deep down feeling that something bigger awaited me in Denison.  Let’s go for that - it sounds much more romantic!

After taking the job, I was made aware (though somewhat subtly) that teaching at Denison was going to be different from the predominantly caucasian school I had just left. Denison has a high population of latino students, and colleagues were quick to tell me that there were "different challenges" I would face in my new program. Why do some people see diversity as a hurdle instead of an opportunity?

I’ll be honest, it looked like a hurdle to me in 2009, but that hurdle became an opportunity I will never regret. The solution was mariachi.  I didn’t know anything about it - all I knew is that it was popular in Mexico, and if I could use it to keep students in band, then I would. See - that’s a little selfish.  I wasn’t thinking about cultural impact or bringing a community together - it was all about my job and my program.

If you want to hear about our journey to starting a mariachi program, ask me sometime - I’ll go on and on about it.  It was a transformative journey that changed my professional life.  For now, I’m going to skip ahead to spring of 2013 - as we come towards the end of our second year of mariachi education in Denison, because that’s when things really got interesting.

April, 2013:  We were preparing for our first fundraiser with our first high school mariachi.  it was going to be a night of food and music, featuring our middle and high school mariachi.  As the day of the event approached, I had parents preparing food and students decorating the middle school commons.  There were soundchecks and run-throughs, and on a Friday night, there were people sitting in seats, eating and socializing.  As I stepped out into the commons, what I saw in front of me was a perfect cross-section of Denison.  Some white-collar, some blue-collar; some young, some old; some retired teachers, some new families; and yes, some caucasian and some not.  I hadn’t seen it to that degree since moving to Denison.  It was one of the greatest sights I have ever seen.  As good as it was, it was about to be topped in about an hour.

The middle school mariachi performed after the meal - they were very “beginner-y” - playing some easy short songs from their lesson book.  They finished up, and we introduced the high school mariachi, who came in wearing their new trajes (mariachi uniforms).  The air was about sucked out of the room when they came in from everyone making one of those gasping sounds that people make when something catches them completely by surprise.  They looked like a real mariachi.  Then they started playing, and they SOUNDED like a real mariachi.

That’s when I saw one of the greatest things I have witnessed in my professional life.  As the high school mariachi played, there were tears - honest to God - tears.  Grown men bursting with so much pride that it leaked out of their eyes.  They were sitting in the middle of western Iowa, listening to their children play music from THEIR culture.

Fiesta 2014 I have a lot of photos from that first fundraiser, and they all have something in common - smiles.  Every student performing and every person sitting in the audience, no matter what label they had been given: hispanic, white, black, asian, retired, poor, rich, white collar, blue collar, coach, teacher, kid - all of them smiling.  The next week, the compliments started coming in, but one I’ll never forget.  One of our teachers, who grew up in Denison and graduated from DHS said to me in the hall: “Thank you - Denison has needed something like that for a long time.”  It started sinking in at that moment - we had done something bigger than keeping kids in band.  We had changed lives and helped bring a community together.

That’s almost too much to accept - even now when I think about it, it scares me a little.  That’s a lot of responsibility.  After all, I just wanted to make sure my job was secure!  No matter what my original intentions were, every time we perform somewhere, it brings people together and it helps elevate the community and the school a little more.

I’ll tell just one more quick story - a couple weeks ago, we took a group to a neighboring school district for a cultural outreach.  Our middle school interpreter and her husband came with us to demonstrate a traditional dance that went with one of the songs we were playing.  During the soundcheck, about 30 minutes before our first performance, some of the students started playing “El Rey.”  That’s a favorite of theirs, and of a lot of people who listen to mariachi.  However, we didn’t have the singer we normally have for that song, so I told them to stop wasting their chops on that since we couldn’t perform it that day.  Raul (the husband of the interpreter) heard me say that, and humbly came up and told me he could sing it if we wanted to play it.  The teacher in me said “no way” - without time to rehearse it?  I was supposed to trust this random community member I had never met before to sing a song?  The adventurer in me said “go for it.”  And we did.  And it was spectacular.  I found out later that when he was younger, he was in a mariachi in Mexico as a child, and loves to sing mariachi, but has missed doing it since moving here.  This week is our second annual fundraiser, and Raul will be singing two songs with the high school mariachi.

As music educators, these are the moments we live for.  Ratings at contest or trophies mean NOTHING compared to making a REAL difference in lives through music.  That’s what mariachi has done for us in Denison.  It has allowed us to reach a whole different group of people and really touch them through music.  It has provided me some of the most meaningful teaching moments of my career.  I have witnessed students breaking down in tears in pure joy after a performance.  I have seen community members become awestruck by students.  I have exposed people to new cultures for the first time.  I have made a difference in Denison, Iowa.  I have had a lot of opportunities because of mariachi.  My job is better because of it, and the community I live in is better for it.

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