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EAST LOS ANGELES : Mariachis Trumpet Their Culture

March 06, 1994|MARY ANNE PEREZ

The sounds coming out of Room 105 at Belvedere Junior High School long after the day's last bell has rung make janitors stop their work and lingering students stare in its direction.

It is like this every Tuesday and Thursday afternoon when Mariachi Olimpico practices.

Trumpets make the short hops of a corrido and violins strain on the melody of a love song. The guitarrons keep time and strong voices sing the Spanish lyrics of Mexico.

Every now and then, music teacher Adolfo Martinez's raised fist signals for the mariachis to stop and the offending musicians are given a gentle nudge to perfection.

"We're not together on this," he says before asking for a spot solo performance to work out the kinks. Sometimes the problem is no more serious than an instrument slightly out of tune, or a bow turned in the wrong direction. "You have more power this way, more control," Martinez says after showing some of the violinists the proper way to hold their bows. "Try that."

After playing a few notes that were problematic just minutes ago, the sound becomes clean. "Good, much better," says their teacher.

The 28 students who make up Mariachi Olimpico practice two afternoons a week for two hours, in addition to their daily one-hour music class. Since 1989, Martinez has coached novice musicians to an award-winning level of performance, bringing recognition to the school.

Mariachi Olimpico, funded solely by private contributions, relies on an annual fund-raiser breakfast to provide the bulk of its funds, said coordinator Patricia Foster. The annual cost for instruments, travel and trajes, or costumes, is $35,000. Each elaborate sombrero is $300, Foster said.

The fifth annual breakfast is from 9 a.m. to noon today at Almansor Court, 700 S. Almansor St., Alhambra. A $30 entry fee includes breakfast and a performance.

The group also has produced a collection of songs on compact disc and cassette, "El Primer Paso," which includes performances by some of the original members of Mariachi Olimpico. "One of the reasons we wanted to record it was to have a record of each year," Foster said. "You can see how the kids progress each year."

Martinez, who has been teaching at Belvedere for 17 years, originally taught classical music. One year, he taught his students one mariachi song and had them perform for a teachers' breakfast. "The response was so good," he said. "At the time I started, I didn't know what I was in for."

The music has become a link between the students and their history--and their parents.

"That's the only thing that we have in common," said Rosa Castillo, whose 14-year-old daughter, Maria del Carmen Hernandez, plays the guitar. Although Maria del Carmen is not among the 14 performing mariachis, she practices after school with the rest of the group.

"It means a lot to me because I'm originally from Mexico and she was born here," Castillo said. "She's in-between and she's not sure what her origin is. Being in a mariachi is something totally different for her.

"The first time I saw her play, I got goose bumps all over my body. You start getting all these feelings inside. Mariachi is good music."

Said Martinez: "Culturally, I thought they needed to be exposed to their own music and, as a result, their self-esteem came up," Martinez said. Stage performances give them more confidence and the audience response adds to that, he said.

"When I was growing up, we were trying to be de-culturalized," Martinez said. "In the long run, your self-esteem suffers when you've got somebody telling you your language and culture are not the right thing or not good enough. This is really an experience for them."

Information: (213) 266-3730.

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