The sound of mariachi music drifts down the halls at Benito Juarez Community Academy in Pilsen as students rehearse every Saturday.
The classes are organized by the Chicago Mariachi Project, which hopes to strike a chord with young students in Chicago and train them to be the future generation of mariachi musicians.
Álvaro Obregón, president and founder of the Chicago Mariachi Project, said the nonprofit hopes to keep this musical tradition alive because the alternative would be devastating.
“Imagine if we, as Mexicanos, if we would lose our culture, our language, our tradition, that would be a tragedy on massive proportions,” he said.
Mariachi music started in the 1700s and incorporates instruments unique to the genre, such as the guitarrón. But mariachi groups also have trumpets, guitars, violins and sometimes a harp.
The Chicago Mariachi Project, founded in 2013, offers in-school and after-school mariachi classes at elementary, middle and high schools throughout the city. Students, ranging from 8 to 18 years old, can audition to be in the coveted youth Mariachi Academy ensembles.
Obregón said learning mariachi music should go hand-in-hand with learning about Mexican culture. He said if a song is about a specific city or state in Mexico, he wants students to be able to find that place on a map.
Carlos Vilchis, 12, is one of about 60 students in the academy. He plays the guitarrón, a giant bass guitar that’s almost as big as him.
“What I like best about mariachi music is that it’s my culture, my traditions,” Vilchis said. “Mariachi means for me a lot, because my grandpa, he used to play violin, and I used to watch him all the time.”
Angelica Ochoa, 11, plays the violin in the beginner ensemble. Like Vilchis, she said she likes mariachi music because it reminds her of her family.
“Once my mom came to America, she didn’t know how to speak any English and my dad didn’t know how to speak any Spanish, so my mom taught my dad,” she said. “My mom started playing mariachi music for my dad, and then my dad started liking it a lot. And they started playing it around when we were little.”
Katie Watkins is a graduate journalism student at Northwestern University. Follow her at @ktwatkins.