This Fort Worth high school will have a ‘special place’ to celebrate music, culture

Seventeen-year-old Cesar Rodriguez knows exactly when the lyrics and notes of a mariachi song transcends time to carry an audience into memories.

“They hear a song they haven’t heard since they were younger. You can just see it in their face. The emotion. It can be a sad song and they feel it in their heart,” explained Rodriguez, a senior at Fort Worth’s North Side High School, where the mariachi program is lifting the school community.

Mariachi is a well-known Mexican style of music that includes expressive Spanish-language vocals, trumpets, guitars, violins and harps. When an audience enjoys a the music, Rodriguez is inspired to keep strumming his Mexican bass guitar, otherwise called guitarrón.

Rodriguez is one of about 20 students who make up Mariachi Espuelas de Plata, an award-winning ensemble that has performed in Europe and Carnegie Hall. The high school’s mariachi program , which began in the 1980s, has more than 200 students and continues to grow.

“When people talk about north side, they talk about mariachi,” said Ramon Niño III, the head director of the Mariachi Espuelas de Plata. “Our kids are out performing in the community almost every weekend. ...There are students here whose parents were in the program before so it is a huge institution in the north side community.”

The program is getting further recognition with the construction of a first-of-its-kind mariachi rehearsal hall. Work is underway on the project, which is expected to give students more room to practice and perfect their art. The hall is part of an estimated $35.1 million renovation project for the campus that includes moving and updating the library.

The North Side project was included in a record $750 million bond package for Fort Worth schools approved by voters in 2017. About 77.5% of the bond was earmarked for renovations for the district’s high schools. Every high school is getting a face lift, including new entrances.

As the district modernizes science labs, updates libraries and creates collaborative spaces with natural light, it is trying to incorporate features that allude to a campus’ areas of excellence into the design.

The 5,000 square foot mariachi hall will offer a new music learning space during the late part of the upcoming spring semester. A mural depicting legends and role models of mariachi music will greet visitors from the outside.

The hall is a cultural nod to Hispanic students and families whose roots are tied to a music style known worldwide.

“It is happiness. It is warmness,” said Alondra Morales, an assistant mariachi director and graduate of the program. “When you go to Mexico, everybody loves Mexico and its people. Why? Because they are so welcoming and warm and that’s what the music does. Mariachi is Mexican music and that’s what we convey — even when we are not in Mexico. We are here in the United States.”

‘State-of-the-art’ mariachi hall

Mariachi education is relatively new in Texas and how it is taught is evolving.

Earlier this year, the music art form became fully sanctioned by the University Interscholastic League. Niño said the Texas Music Educators Association is creating a first in 2021 with an All-State Mariachi Ensemble.

As the population of students with Hispanic and Latino backgrounds grew in Texas, so too did interest in mariachi at North Side.

Programs exist across Texas. In Arlington, a mariachi program at Sam Houston High School has been growing since it began as a club in 2005. In Fort Worth, Carter-Riverside, Polytechnic and Paschal high schools also have mariachi programs.

“When this program started, it was literally like a custodian closet that was emptied out to host a few kids who could play guitars and stuff,” Niño said.

At North Side, the mariachi program started in the 1980s, when the Hispanic population wasn’t as large as it is today.

“When it started, it was really important because it was an outlet for the students who were struggling to be accepted in the community,” Niño said.

Principal Antonio Martinez said the bond project came at the right time for North Side.

“Our mariachi is growing,” Martinez said. “We are over 200 students and we need a professional room. We have a professional group — by professional is that they are playing at that level.”

Construction of the band hall is under way. It is expected to be finished by February or March, according to the district.

There will be four “sound conditioned” practice rooms with recording capability.

Niño said the hall will create a state-of-the-art space that meets the unique needs of mariachi musicians, including a big rehearsal space, and dressing rooms so students change into their traditional Charro and Charra outfits used during performances.

The hall will also have storage space for mariachi Charro outfits and sombreros.

Niño said students tape up windows in practice rooms to create dressing rooms.

The new hall will also have mirrored walls — similar to a ballet studio — that will allow musicians to focus on their expressions while singing and playing instruments. Facial expressions are a key part of the mariachi art form, Niño said, adding that they help carry a song set in Old Mexico about people falling in and out of love.

Mariachi hall is different from a typical band hall, said Roberto Ramirez, an architect with WRA Architects and project manager for the mariachi hall.

Ramirez said one feature for the hall is space dedicated to the storage of instruments such as the vihuela, a guitar-like instrument and large guitarrón.

The pride of the neighborhood

The outside of the mariachi hall will match the existing campus.

In order to capture the spirit of the music taking place inside the new building, the outside will include murals that depict mariachi celebrities. The murals will be about five feet off the ground and facing the street.

“They represent the different kinds of mariachi music,” Ramirez, adding that some of the celebrities highlighted include alumni of the North Side mariachi program. “They have actually gone out and joined really big mariachis throughout the U.S.”

Ramirez said the murals will be the most prominent feature visible to the community. Five artists will create eight panels or murals that will depict mariachi performers: Jose Alfredo Jimenez, Lucha Villa, Lola Beltran and Aida Cuevas, Javier Solis, Jose “Pepe” Perez and Josue “Panchito” Duran.

Morales, an alum of the program, will be featured on the wall as an example of mariachi success from within the North Side community. She said it makes her feel special to be a mariachi role model for students.

“It’s so epic because this is a new building,” Morales said, adding that the investment in the program is historic.

Ramirez, whose brother and cousin participated in the mariachi program in the late 1980s, said the art will celebrate the community’s culture.

“It’s a big deal for the neighborhood,” Ramirez said. “This going to be something that the community can be proud of and it’s very visible.”

A special place to celebrate music

When North Side’s mariachi students come together to practice and perform, they fine tune their artistry while bonding like a family.

“For me, personally, it is a passion,” Rodriguez said. “I’m very proud of my roots. This is emblematic of Mexican culture, which is the mariachi.”

Esmeralda Canales Salas, 18, a senior who plays the violin in the mariachi, said she has played with her mariachi classmates for about five years.

“That’s what I wait for every single day because they are my friends,” Canales said. “We are very communicative. We are really together. We know our lives.”

Canales said people are always asking musicians to play gigs or cheering for them at events. She said she remembers being awestruck by the mariachi when they visited her elementary school campus years ago. That was her introduction to mariachi music.

Canales said she is able to learn about her Mexican roots through the ranchera style of mariachi songs.

“I really like rancheras because you are pouring your heart out,” Canales said. “Especially, when there is a break in your voice and you feel emotion of the singer.”

Sometimes, Canales said, when she is practicing and singing at home her mother and family members join in song and laughter. Sometimes, they sound pretty good, Canales said.

Canales said mariachi music has the power to connect communities.

“We are human and music represents the emotions you feel in a certain instance,” she said. “There are different songs for each special occasion.”

Love, heartbreak, laughter and sadness are all represented in mariachi music, she said, adding that more people need to be exposed to mariachi music.

Even though Canales is graduating this year, she hopes to practice in the new hall in the spring. She hopes other high school mariachi programs reach North Side’s level.

“I feel like having your own room is kind of like having your own little special place to celebrate your culture — your music,” Canales said.

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Diane Smith, a graduate from the University of Texas at Austin, has been a reporter for the Star-Telegram since 1997. Smith, who has covered municipal government, immigration and education, has won multiple awards for reporting, most recently as part of a Star-Telegram team recognized by the Headliners Foundation of Texas for coverage of child abuse and Fort Worth’s Las Vegas Trail area.