Mariachi ASU program canceled after 25 years
On Tuesday afternoons, the music pouring from a second-floor classroom in Gammage Auditorium begins with the tuning of the vihuela, a Spanish guitar.
After a few seconds, violins and trumpets are raised and a large six-stringed guitarron joins in as the Mariachi ASU club begins to play.
For music professor and Mariachi ASU director Richard Haefer, the practice is bittersweet; it is one of the last times Mariachi ASU will meet here — after 25 years, the program is coming to an end.
ASU’s School of Music announced earlier this month that the current program, a combination of an all-student based ensemble and one made up of students and community members, would be dissolved.
The all-student group is part of a one-credit course offered at ASU.
“It has always been a stable or expanding program,” Haefer said. “Over 200 students over 25 years. It is a program that has allowed students to maintain contact with their heritage, grow and progress to complete their degrees.”
School of Music director Kimberly Marshall said the mariachi program will be incorporated into the core curriculum of the school. Currently the program isn’t part of the school.
“It will be completely different,” Marshall said. “Instead of evening meetings of a community group and a group comprised of students from across the University, mariachi training will be part of the ensemble training of all music majors, taught by a specialist performer during the afternoon ensemble rehearsal slots.”
Music education students will also begin taking classes on creating mariachi programs in the schools where they will be teaching, she said.
Music education senior Albert Becerra, who plays vihuela and sings for Mariachi ASU, said he was shocked by the group’s cancellation.
“We were given no notice at all,” he said. “We found out at our 25th anniversary concert as the director was explaining how the school was going to change. Later we found out through Dr. Haefer that we were not going to be a part of that change.”
What had been tears of joy at the concert turned to those of anger and frustration, Becerra said.
Mariachi music is a dying art, a form that is often overlooked in the United States, he said.
“In Mexico, mariachis are highly respected,” he said. “When they get hired for events, parties or serenades, it is the highest present or gift or regard you can give someone.”
Here in the U.S., Becerra said, mariachi bands are just told to play in corners to add ambiance to a location.
“I thought mariachi was going to be in the School of Music, that they were finally understanding its importance to the community,” he said. “From what we know, it’s not a budget issue, [The School of Music] likes to play this numbers game, saying we do not have enough people in the group.”
Only four music majors participate in Mariachi ASU, out of 26 participants in the existing mariachi program.
Becerra said he hopes to start a new group on campus for those interested in mariachi music.
For nursing freshman Karine Soto, a violinist for Mariachi ASU, the program was her connection to home.
“I come from a small town — Nogales, [Ariz.]” Soto said. “Mariachi is a huge part of our culture.”
A high school teacher introduced Soto to Haefer a year ago at the International Mariachi Conference, the same conference that Mariachi ASU performed at Thursday in Tucson for the last time.
A lot has changed in a year, Soto said.
“It is not going to be mariachi anymore,” she said. “The School of Music is taking over the program. We’re not just a class, we go to a lot of places and perform.”
The new mariachi program is scheduled to perform twice in the fall, Marshall said.
“To them it will be just like another music class with only two performances,” she said.
Freshman engineering student and Mariachi ASU trumpeter Miguel Omana said the music program, especially mariachi, brought him to ASU.
“Now with the program they want to go forward, they just want to say, ‘Hey, look, this kind of music exists,’ as though saying, ‘Look, jazz and classical music exists,’ but [they’re] not going into it,” Omana said. “Is that justice?”
The mariachi groups at the University have been a big part of the community, something Omana said he has never seen before.
“In general, people look down on mariachis as musicians,” he said. “I have not applied to the School of Music yet, but when I go in, I am going to say I am proud of what I am.”
Marshall said that, ideally, the community and University group would continue, but it can’t be done for fiscal reasons, and the School of Music wasn’t the appropriate sponsor for the groups.
The school has already laid off faculty and can’t devote resources to a group where just four of 880 music majors are enrolled, she said, and the main catalyst for the change was Haefer’s request to take a sabbatical in the fall.
Haefer said that in the 25 years he has been running the program, he has taken three sabbaticals and the program has always continued in his absence until now.
“I very much regret that we can no longer support all aspects of the mariachi program, but I hope that in the long run, my decision will ensure a sustainable mariachi presence that far exceeds the confines of ASU or the surrounding community,” Marshall said.
As Tuesday evening set in, the members of Mariachi ASU continued their practice, stopping every couple of minutes to discuss minor changes to the music.
“Here we are, improvising days before a performance,” Becerra joked.
Outside the room and down the hall, Becerra’s voice carries alongside the violins, guitars and Omana’s trumpet until the door finally closes and the music stops.
Reach the reporter at email@example.com