Local students take part in mariachi workshops as part of UIC’s first Latin American Music Festival  

The twang of guitar chords, high-pitched squeaks of violins and brassy bursts of trumpets filled the air of Student Center East April 11, as the first day of the Latin American Music Festival kicked off with Mexican mariachi music performances and workshops.  

More than a hundred high school and elementary-age students who are part of mariachi ensembles at their schools and afterschool programs were invited by the UIC School of Theatre and Music to participate in workshops led by professional musicians and ensembles as part of the inaugural Mariachi Festival at the University of Illinois Chicago.  

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Among the groups working with the younger players were members of three ensembles, Mariachi de la Universidad de Veracruzana, UIC’s ensemble Mariachi Fuego and the group Duo Destello. The Latin American Music Festival also featured events on Friday, April 12, and Saturday, April 13.  

Michael Espinosa, an adjunct lecturer at UIC, is also the director of Mariachi Fuego, which formed in 2014. He served as the master of ceremonies for the mariachi festival. Espinosa also teaches at Benito Juarez High School and leads ensembles for the nonprofit After School Matters program at Juarez and Curie high schools.  

“It’s always a good time to be able to have students come in and see other students doing the same thing and seeing professionals in the field,” Espinosa said. “I’m glad that UIC can bring this together and bring all these students here. Mariachi music, in general, is the melting pot of the whole world.”  

He said the UIC mariachi festival was designed for students of mariachi music to connect and learn from each other and from professional musicians. As they worked with professional mariachi musicians like Ivan Velasco, a renowned harp player and teacher with Mariachi de la Universidad de Veracruzana, Espinosa said it was important for the young students to absorb as much of that knowledge as possible.  

During a workshop, multi-instrumentalist Daniel Ochoa worked with students from Curie High School’s After School Matters ensemble as they ran through several mariachi standards. Ochoa is part of the Chicago-based group Duo Destello and performed on Friday and Saturday with violinist Erendira Izguerra, a UIC alumna.  

Ochoa prodded the violin players to use their full bows on their instruments to get the most powerful sound possible, then focused on getting the guitar players to fully strum their chords and play with rhythm. He reminded them that mariachi music is meant to be played passionately and without fear.  

“Play with confidence and don’t be scared, because mariachi music is one of those art forms that doesn’t have room for shyness,” Ochoa said. “It’s a point of pride for Mexico to be able to push forward our culture and our tradition.”  

One student who took Ochoa’s teaching to heart was Briana Alvarado, a Curie High School senior who belted out passionate lyrics as she sang the love song, “Los Laureles.” Alvarado, a senior planning on attending UIC next fall, followed her grandfather and her father to become mariachi musicians. At age 9, she began playing guitar and the vihuela Mexicana, a traditional instrument, and began singing.  

“There are some people who don’t understand Spanish and the way that I sing; they don’t have to understand the words but more, feel the emotion from it,” said Alvarado. “This inspired me more to come here to UIC.”   

Benito Juarez senior Gene Siller said he plans to attend UIC in the fall and pursue music at the School of Theatre and Music. He said he would like to be part of UIC’s Mariachi Fuego ensemble. Siller said that while his family’s roots are in Mexico, he didn’t listen to mariachi music until he joined the Juarez mariachi ensemble as a high school freshman. He now plays guitar and violin in the group.  

“I just fell in love with all of the passionate music and songs,” Siller said. “The way Mr. Espinosa taught it, I loved it.”   

Z. Amador, a Juarez junior and first-generation Mexican American, said she grew up listening to mariachi music because it always played in the background in her home. She plays violin and said the best thing she gets from playing in the band is enjoyment.   

“It’s just fun,” Amador said. “You feel it in the moment. You feel a connection with everyone.”  

Tony Ozuna, a teacher at Jovita Idar Elementary School in Gage Park, brought about 30 students who are part of the school’s Mariachi Los Pumas ensemble. The music is part of the music program for first- through eighth-grade students.  

He said because most students have roots in Mexico, learning about mariachi music allows them to connect to their culture and garner support from their parents and the community.   

“They end up finding friendships, and they end up finding all of these amazing things,” Ozuna said. “For some of the students, it’s the only thing that keeps them in school.”  

Brenda Villalobos served as a Jovita Idar chaperone on the UIC visit and said she was happy that her 11-year-old daughter, Isabella, is involved in something positive and has developed strong friendships and a unique bond with the other young musicians.  

“She loves the atmosphere and playing with her friends,” said Villalobos.  

Yennya Segura, another Jovita Idar school chaperone, said her son Edgardo is an eighth-grade student and has been playing guitar with the mariachi ensemble since he was in first grade. She said that while she was happy her son loved playing with the ensemble, she was proud he was learning about their culture through mariachi music.  

“It’s one of the most beautiful things we can give our children from our Mexican roots,” Segura said. “We want them to be able to share it with others and feel proud of where they come from.”  

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