Bringing down the (White) House

January 9, 2013 

A rousing performance in the East Room is the latest honor for the Mariachi Master Apprentice Program.

Every performer loves a standing ovation. And for a troupe of young mariachis from the northeast San Fernando Valley, the only thing better than bringing a White House audience to its feet was having Michelle Obama in the front row as Applauder-in-Chief.

Put your hands together for the city of San Fernando’s Mariachi Master Apprentice Program, fresh from an engagement at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, where the group received a prestigious National Arts and Humanities Youth Program award worth $10,000, and enough incredible moments to last a lifetime—from first trip in an airplane to first visit to the Lincoln Memorial to first photo-op with the First Lady.

“It was surreal,” said 16-year-old Anthony Fino, who plays trumpet in the organization’s Mariachi Tesoro performance ensemble, which wowed ‘em in Washington, D.C. over the Thanksgiving break.

“As an educator, you can’t simply prepare for that kind of emotional hurricane, the feeling of standing in the White House,” said Sergio Alonso, one of the group’s musical instructors. “Gosh, how can you even envision playing in an atmosphere like that?” (A recent gig at Disneyland was also pretty cool. Next stop: the Board of Supervisors, where they’re being honored on January 15.)

The national award recognizes after-school “arts and humanities programs that celebrate the creativity of America’s young people, particularly those from underserved communities.”

The San Fernando group, started on a shoestring twelve years ago, certainly fits the bill. It brings together local kids with professional musicians, including those who’ve played with the legendary Nati Cano, a co-founder of the organization with Virginia Diediker, the city of San Fernando’s cultural arts supervisor.

The rigorous program doesn’t just introduce students to the cultural and musical richness of the mariachi tradition; it also gives them a leg up on future academic and professional success.

“We are helping these young musicians learn life skills, through the discipline that music provides,” Diediker said.

Its participants have a stellar graduation record, in an area where only 58% of students finish high school. Some, like 17-year-old Ernesto Lazaro, hope to use their mariachi talents as a springboard to studying music at a famed conservatory like Juilliard. Others head in another kind of professional direction, like Stefanie Espinoza, a UCLA freshman who aims to become a surgeon.

Espinoza, 19, who plays violin and sings with the ensemble, is still feeling a motivational buzz from the group’s White House debut.

When she stepped forward to solo on “¡Viva Mexico, Viva America!” as part of the medley the group performed in the East Room on November 19, Espinoza smiled and looked directly at the First Lady.

“She looked at me and I looked at her. She looked so great,” said Espinoza, who’s majoring in physiological science. Equally thrilling: being praised by the First Lady for choosing to study science.

In honoring this year’s 12 award-winning groups for pushing students toward excellence, often against long odds, Obama also threw down a challenge to the young artists:

“Your job now is to pass it on—to find someone in your life that you’re going to mentor, that you’re going to pull up. And whether it’s in the arts or whether it’s academically, your job is to find the next you.”

That resonated with Fabian Narez, 17, who pays it forward by coaching younger students, members of the organization’s “Tesoritos” program, on the violin.

For Narez and many of the other musicians, mariachi is a way to connect with their heritage—and their parents’ and grandparents’ music, even if many of their peers are more into rap or hip-hop.

“The school’s 98% Hispanic. It’s part of our roots,” Narez said. And even if he ends up with a business degree and achieves his dream of becoming a CEO, he said, he intends to keep the mariachi tradition alive.

“I would love to keep performing till the day I die,” he said. “It’s one of my many dreams.”

There’s also a certain “big musician on campus” status that erupts when you return to your high school with a White House gig under your belt.

“Some of them were pretty jealous, to tell you the truth,” said San Fernando High School student Alejandro Ascencio, 15, who performs in the group along with his two brothers. “Everybody knows about it and would like to be in it.”

The young performers had the audience, including First Lady Michelle Obama, on their feet.

Watch their performance in this White House video.

Posted 1/9/13

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