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VISD's mariachi program gets new leader (video)

By Carolina Astrain
Sept. 23, 2013 at 4:23 a.m.
Updated Sept. 24, 2013 at 4:24 a.m.

Mariachi Director Juan Escamilla, 23, far right, helps his students Lucero Alvarez, 17, left, Juhree Rodriguez, 17, middle, and Lilibeth Gonzalez, 17, right, during class at Liberty Academy in Victoria. "He's really nice; I think we'll learn a lot from him this year," Juhree said. All three students said that mariachi is important to them because of tradition and their culture. "I grew up with mariachi; it's always been a big part of my life," Lilibeth said.

When Victoria East High School senior Juhree Rodriguez, 17, first walked into her fourth-period class, she did a double take.

She looked at the Victoria school district's new mariachi director, Juan M. Escamilla, 23, and wondered for a moment if he was a student.

"He looked so young," Juhree said. "I was surprised when I realized he was our teacher."

Escamilla moved from teaching guitar and bass at McNair Middle School, part of the Southwest school district in San Antonio, to Victoria this fall to start as the district's new mariachi director.

The San Antonio native joined VISD under a contract of 187 days with a salary of $42,600 per year.

The move to Victoria was a promotion for the instructor, who started teaching as an 18-year-old attending Our Lady of the Lake University, where he earned his bachelor's degree in music, Escamilla said.

At his last school, Escamilla said his class sizes were larger compared to VISD, but he said he's looking forward to working with a smaller group of students this year.

"I like that it's more of a one-on-one setting here," Escamilla said. "It makes it easier to work with the students."

The director began playing mariachi music in middle school and from there has gone on to perform with a few professional groups, including Mariachi OLLUtlan and Mariachi Palomino Palo Alto College, both under the direction of Juan Ortiz, a Grammy Award-winning instructor and Las Campanas de America musical director.

With fewer than 10 students as part of the district's mariachi program, VISD Fine Arts Director Ken Peach said he and Escamilla are working to draw more students to the program.

Former mariachi Director Robert Rodriguez, who led the high school mariachi program from 2000 until his retirement this year, said introducing students to mariachi music at the middle school level is the key to growth.

Between 2005 and 2009, Rodriguez was able to recruit students into his high school program from an after-school mariachi program he started at Patti Welder Middle School.

But once the middle school lost its magnet funding, the after-school program ended, Rodriguez said.

"I've always said that those three years of having the after-school club made my program stronger," Rodriguez said. "You can't get them enough experience by starting them in the ninth grade."

The formation of an after-school mariachi club at Patti Welder in collaboration with the campus' new assistant principal, Gabriel Garcia - who is a former mariachi director - is in the works, Peach said.

"It's in our plans to see the program grow," Peach said. "I'd like to see mariachi expand into our middle schools eventually, but that takes more funding and people."

Over the last month, Liberty Academy senior Xizavier Olguin, 17, said he's learned how to play four songs in the mariachi class.

This is Xizavier's first year in the mariachi program, but he came in with eight years of playing experience through high school marching band and his own band, Shawn Guzman and Texas Soul.

"My favorite has to be 'Por Un Amor,'" Xizavier said. "I like the style; it's different. I play the guitarron on that one."



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