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December 22, 2013

Students find path to college in mariachi music

WENATCHEE, Wash. — By the end of a recent weekend, the big achievement among Ramon Rivera’s high school mariachi band wasn’t that they had logged more than 700 miles in a bus packed with musical instruments or that they had played two shows in front of large audiences.

It was that eight of them, all sons and daughters of Latino farmworkers from the agricultural city of Wenatchee, had been accepted into Washington State University — the first in their families to gain admission to college.

“They could be the next lawyers, senators, doctors, and the next president of the United States,” Rivera told a cheering theater crowd that weekend during one of their shows.

The news was one of the success stories from the Wenatchee High School, where officials created a mariachi program to connect children of farmworkers in the heart of Washington state’s apple country with their heritage.

School officials say the class has helped students center themselves and has even helped graduation rates.

It’s not just for farmworker kids, however. Everyone’s invited and some non-Latino kids have joined.

“Mariachi is a leadership class for our students because it teaches them self-discipline, teaches them to work hard, teaches them how to be on time, teaches them to speak in front of an audience,” Rivera said.

“These are skills that can’t be put down on a test,” said Rivera, who moved to Wenatchee from the Los Angeles area in 2006 to take over the program, and reinforced the program’s focus on higher education.

Wenatchee, located in north central Washington state, is built on agriculture, sending millions of apples, cherries and pears worldwide. Many of the fruits are picked by immigrant farmworkers from Mexico and Central America. Some of their children work summers in the fields.

To connect with them, the school district created the program using Mexico’s mariachi music in 1997. The program is dubbed “Mariachi Huenachi” for the Spanish phonetic spelling of Wenatchee.

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