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FOR KIDS : Shining With Mariachi Sol : San Fernando Elementary pupils get in touch with their roots in Mexican music classes.

June 30, 1995|LEILA COBO-HANLON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Leila Cobo-Hanlon writes regularly about music for The Times

SAN FERNANDO — Until last year, 10-year-old Dolores Campos had never played a musical instrument. Neither had her parents nor her two siblings.

But somehow, Dolores fell in love with the sound of Mexican mariachi music, and today she is a budding violinist, one of nearly 40 youngsters enrolled in mariachi classes at San Fernando Elementary School.

"I like coming here better than going to recess," said Dolores, carefully cradling her rented violin during a break in the music lessons and not glancing once at the children screaming in the adjacent playground. Weekly lessons in the traditional music of Mexico are offered Thursdays from noon to 1:30 p.m. and are entirely voluntary. But for Dolores, who practices every day, they are time well-spent.

On this day, anticipating an upcoming concert, she and the whole troupe of fourth-, fifth- and sixth-graders are dressed in full mariachi regalia. Starched white shirts are offset by long black skirts for the girls--their hair is tied back with yellow ribbons--and black pants with golden trim for the boys.

While the rest of the school has lunch, the group, led by teacher Jose Luis Salinas, cranks out the Mexican folk song "Guadalajara en un llano" ("Guadalajara on a Plain") with a gusto that makes up for the often uneven sound.

"I need you guys to practice much more," Salinas chastises in Spanish. But out of earshot, he admits that the group--which mixes beginners with advanced students--is improving. And since they've been studying music, their other teachers report an improvement in behavior and academic work.

It is obvious that the San Fernando Elementary Mariachi is as much about music as it is about instilling a sense of cultural pride in this school where the vast majority of the students are Latino, most of them of Mexican background.

The program is sponsored by the Mariachi Heritage Society, a nonprofit organization founded by violinist Jose Hernandez, leader of renowned Los Angeles-based Mariachi Sol de Mexico, which has recorded with such artists as Linda Ronstadt and recently appeared in the film "Don Juan DeMarco."

The society sponsors affordable lessons at two other schools, in East Los Angeles and Pico Rivera. They provide the teachers--all members of Sol de Mexico--and pay their salaries, and they give scholarships to talented students and help pay for uniforms and other necessities. San Fernando Elementary, however, is the only school served where the lessons are actually part of the school's curriculum, taught during school hours and free to children enrolled there.

Salinas, a violinist with Sol de Mexico, has been with the school since the inception of the program. He teaches his students not only how to play the violin, but also the trumpet, guitarron (bass guitar) and vihuela (the smaller guitar).

"I had this dream of a mariachi program many years ago, but I couldn't find anyone to teach the classes, nor could I get the resources," says Principal Candida Fernandez.

Because mariachi lessons were available at the local junior high through Cal State Northridge, Fernandez saw her children as a sort of "missing link." She wanted to be able to initiate them at an early age into the thriving mariachi program in her area.

She contacted the Mariachi Society, they agreed to fund the program, and it has been operating since August, 1993.

Any student can take the classes, provided his or her grades are good enough, and instruments can be rented from the Los Angeles Unified School District for $15 a year. Although some of the children can read music, most do not, and because of time constraints, Salinas teaches them how to play by ear and by rote.

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The group has become proficient enough that it can perform for an audience, and this, says Fernandez, is the greatest thrill of all.

"Parents love it, they absolutely love it," she said. "They get choked up each time they see their little ones performing, and see that their culture is being accepted as well as highlighted. My hope is that they'll maintain their interest through college."

Freddy Bocanegra, 12, is one of the group's leaders, his passion for the music obvious in the rapt attention he gives to Salinas' every instruction.

"My sister played the guitar, and I thought that's what I would do," he says. "But I was inspired by the vihuela . I can use my nails with it," he explains as he shows off his fingernails and strums his rented instrument. Freddy is talented enough that Salinas is considering recommending him for a scholarship from the Heritage Society to continue his studies at the Los Angeles Music and Arts School in East Los Angeles. But beyond that, the sixth-grader is not sure how far he'll go.

"My parents say it's very difficult to be a professional musician. They say it's good to learn music to serenade your girlfriend," he adds, smiling.

Salinas would like to see his best students playing someday in good orchestras, not in bars or cantinas. And he would like to see every student "recognize and appreciate the art of mariachi. Have them not forget their roots, and take pride in being Latinos. Mariachi is art, it's culture and it's beautiful music," he says.

Dolores' mother, Juanita Campos, agrees: "I never had the opportunity to study music as a child. I have three kids and it's nice to see that one took an interest in Mexican culture and an instrument. My 18-year-old is into heavy metal and I don't know why Dolores got into mariachi. But she loves the violin and she practices every day . . . and I think she could do it professionally. I would love to see my kid up there on stage."

Students in mariachi class at San Fernando Elementary School, top, practice a tune as they wait for instructor Jose Luis Salinas, left, to arrive. Dolores Campos plays the violin.

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