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SO SOCAL: The Best...The Beautiful...And the Bizarre

Tiny Troubadours

May 23, 1999|David Geffner

Most Monday evenings, in a small, drab community center in South El Monte, the sun is coaxed to sleep by the bittersweet cancines of some of Mexico's greatest mariachis: Jorge Negrete, Pedro Infante and Lola Beltran. The restless, utterly romantic songs, copied and committed to memory by mariachi hopefuls as young as 5, float through the room like so many polished trumpet solos.

The nearly 800 students who make up Jose Hernandez's Mariachi Heritage Society practice this centuries-old art form with a gusto bordering on obsession. Sixty students rehearse this night. With jet-black hairdos swept tightly back by traditional, wide-brimmed sombreros or lips painted brightly in jewel-colored hues, they belt out classic Mexican tales of love lost and passions unfulfilled to a hushed audience of proud parents.

"I live in Van Nuys and have to travel two hours round-trip to study here," notes a flushed Gabriel Tejeda moments after his trumpet lesson ends. "My friends at Reseda High School all listen to house or rap music and don't understand my love for mariachi. But I'm devoted. It's the best combination of technique and emotion of any music, anywhere."

The society's youth outreach plan operates in five L.A.-area public schools, as well as two South El Monte locations. The program's founder and leader, Hernandez stages public benefits for the society with renowned mariachi bands from L.A. and Mexico. "Part of the show is always set aside for the kids to perform what they've learned," says Hernandez, a fifth-generation mariachi born in Mexicali and raised in East Los Angeles. "Since many of our students end up starting their own mariachi groups outside class, we know we're not just providing education about their cultural heritage, we're also building careers."

How do children, some more in tune with "Rugrats" than romance, connect with the time-honored mariachi songs of broken hearts and tequila-soaked laments? Ask first-grader Monica Lopez, who juggles mariachi voice classes with folkloico dancing, and she'll tell you she doesn't always understand the music's complex phrasing, r"but the songs are really pretty and they sometimes make my mom cry, I think."

"There's a connection in mariachi music between what my parents love and my own need for personal expression," says 17-year-old Arroyo High senior Paula Mendo. "Some of Reina de Los Angeles [an all-female mariachi band started by Hernandez] were students here, so why can't a teenage girl like me become a great mariachi singer? I just change the words from 'he' to 'she' and sing like the whole world is listening."

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