“It should be loooong,” Newell says as he slowly pulls a bow across the strings of the violin tucked under his chin and they respond with a high-pitched whine.
Demonstration done, Newell hands the violin back to a student and leads the group through another rendition of “De Colores.”
These middle-schoolers are part of what may be Iowa’s first and only school-run mariachi band. The group came together last fall and took its place alongside Denison Community School District’s jazz, pep, concert and marching bands. It capped off this year’s inaugural season with a community performance at the local arts center in March.
“It’s weird that Denison started it because it’s not a big town,” said Gustavo Flores a 14-year-old who plays guitarron and runs the 400-meter for the school’s track team. Thin, with a wide, nervous smile, Flores explains that he tried out for mariachi because it originated in the town of Jalisco, which is where his father was born.
He’s proud of the fact that he quickly moved up from regular guitar to guitarron — it looks similar to a traditional guitar but has a deeper body — which keeps the line, or beat, of the mariachi moving.
Although mariachi has its roots in Jalisco, it is played throughout Latin America. Bands are mainstays at weddings, funerals, la Quinceanera celebrations (which are coming out parties for 15-year-olds) and a host of other social gatherings.
“It’s their jazz band,” Newell said. “You know jazz is an American art form that was started in the United States, has grown up and become associated with that. Mariachi is Mexico’s version of that.”
Newell went looking for other Iowa mariachi programs when he started research on the mariachi last summer, but he came up empty. Staci Hupp, spokeswoman for the Iowa Department of Education, said the department doesn’t track what extracurricular courses and programs are offered at individual districts, but she wasn’t aware of any other mariachi programs.
“As far as we can tell — and we looked — we’re the only ones in the state,” Newell said.
South and west of here, it’s a different story.
“There are hundreds (of programs),” said Robert Rodriguez, a mariachi instructor in the Victoria Independent School District in Victoria, Texas, who teaches 50 students in the district’s two high schools.
“We have district competition, sectional, regional and, then, if you’re really good, you go to state,” he said. “It’s like any other big competitions you see. Most of the teams come from south Texas, Arizona, Nevada and California.”
Newell and Patti Bekkerus, who directs the middle school band program, brought the mariachi idea to Denison after learning about programs in other states during a professional development conference.
They figured mariachi might be a hit in Denison, where nearly 42 percent of its 8,300 residents are Hispanic. Many of them, including Flores’ father, work at the 1,700-employee Farmland Foods processing plant on the city’s northwest side.
Newell and Bekkerus were right. The idea turned out to be so popular that the new program was limited only by the number of instruments it has.
“This is a way to connect differently with some different students’ culture that we’re not connecting to with jazz band and marching band and that kind of thing,” Newell said.
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University of Iowa Associate Professor of World Languages, Literatures and Cultures Brian Gollnick was floored when he heard about the Denison program.
“Wow,” he said. “It’s not something you expect to see in Iowa. It would be like if you found out that a school in France had a country/western music program. It’s just unexpected.”
Gollnick said the program seemed to be a good way to engage students who might otherwise feel left out of the school system. Hispanics, he said, historically have had higher dropout rates than other minorities and, some experts say, culture clash is a main reason for that.
“Also, mariachi musicians can make a good living,” Gollnick said. “The bands are hired for all types of events … We just had Mothers’ Day, and in some of the neighborhoods around here, you could hear the mariachi bands that were hired to serenade the mothers playing outside in front of the homes.”
Bryan Pena, a 14-year-old trumpet player in the Denison band, said that’s part of his plan.
“Almost all my uncles from my mom’s side are in mariachi bands,” Pena said.
Most of them play in California, although he has one trumpet-playing uncle in Sioux City with whom Pena sometimes plays.
“I want to reach those goals, to play professionally,” Pena said.
Newell plans to move the current group up to high school and start another eighth-grade group next year. Ideally, he said, Denison will be able to replenish its middle school band each year as successive generations move up.
For now, it all seems possible.
“One side effect is there are now a lot of very jealous high school students who have seen them doing this, and now I’ve spent the last three months answering (the question) ‘When are we going to do this? When are we going to start one?’” he said.