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Youths Keep in Tune With Their Roots as Mariachis

September 14, 1989|VICTORIA BARCELONA | Barcelona is a Los Angeles-based free-lance journalist. and

They refuse to lose touch with their roots. They cling to the mariachi tradition that connects them to their past.

They are the young mariachis from Belvedere Junior High School, 10 female violinists and five males who play the trumpet, the "vihuela," the guitar or the bass guitar.

They have rekindled their pride in their Latino culture despite the peer pressure usually exerted on those who adopt a style not yet stamped with the general seal of approval.

The mariachi "lets me know where I came from. . . . It makes us feel real special . . . ," said 15-year-old Consuelo Monreal.

Monreal and other members of Mariachi Olimpico say they have been inspired by Linda Ronstadt and her Spanish-language album "Canciones de mi Padre," from which they do a rendition of "Y Andale."

"Now that she sings the songs, I like them more," said 16-year-old Norma Valenzuela. She adds that during a recent trip to Mexico she noticed that students there are very involved with the mariachi tradition.

"I saw a lot of people dancing to mariachis. All young. It is very popular with the young people," she said, although that doesn't mean they listen any less to U.S. music stars.

The situation seems to be different in Los Angeles.

Mariachis are part of the cultural heritage of East Los Angeles, but many young Latinos are afraid to listen to "the music of their parents," said Adolfo Martinez, Mariachi Olimpico director.

It wasn't that easy to persuade a group of young people born and schooled in the barrio to form a group to play rancheras, sones , and other songs, he added.

Before, that type of music was "almost a taboo for most," he said, referring to the cultural conflicts faced by Latino teens.

The Belvedere mariachis, who have been playing together since January, say they are proud to be part of the group.

What motivates them to stay after school four hours a week for rehearsals?

"If you have your parents' support, it encourages you to do better, said Lorraine Feesago, 13.

Other students approach their parents to have the Spanish-language lyrics explained to them, which opens up new avenues of communication between the two generations.

"We understand each other better now," says Elizabeth Nunez. Nunez's mother understands English but doesn't speak it.

The possibility of earning a living as mariachis while attending college is not out of the question for the young musicians. Several raise their hands when asked if they'll continue playing after graduation.

"Since I got involved with this, I forgot about the idea of ever leaving the trumpet. . . . I'm going to stick it out with the mariachi," said Jose Ramirez, 16.

The Belvedere minstrels also play in public and have raised $870 of the $4,000 they need to buy typical mariachi outfits. In August, they played in front of 300 guests at the 60th wedding anniversary of violinist Monreal's grandparents.

Dressed in black and white, they sang about love, life, the land and the family.

Although sometimes sad, the mariachi's music teaches us to take life philosophically, says ethnomusicologist David Kilpatrick, who conducts the Roosevelt High School group, apparently the only other mariachi operating in the Los Angeles school district.

He adds that it would be a good idea for other schools to promote the formation of young mariachis. "When you play music together, you really do get close, so it's a good way of helping to integrate the schools."

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