Ann Arbor students do deep dive on mariachi music in advance of Chicago mariachi band's performance

This story is part of a series about arts and culture in Washtenaw County. It is made possible by the Ann Arbor Art Center, the Ann Arbor Summer Festival, Destination Ann Arbor, Larry and Lucie Nisson, and the University Musical Society.

Students at Ann Arbor's Scarlett Middle School have been exploring the history and cultural significance of mariachi music as they prepare to enjoy a special performance by a chart-topping Chicago-based mariachi group.

The Latin Grammy-nominated Mariachi Herencia de México will perform for Scarlett students on Jan. 24 at 11 a.m., following the group's public performance at Hill Auditorium on Jan. 23 at 7:30 p.m. Mariachi Herencia de México's performance here is presented by the University Musical Society (UMS). For several years now, Scarlett social studies teacher Evelyn Daugherty has worked with UMS to schedule an annual special daytime performance that will appeal to Scarlett students. Students spend three to four weeks leading up to the performance learning about the history and context of the art form they've decided to see.
In the past, Scarlett's sixth, seventh, and eighth graders have attended performances by the prize-winning dancer and choreographer Camille A. Brown, who explores issues related to Black identity and culture in her work; Step Afrika!, a nonprofit dance company that combines traditional forms of South African gumboot dance with African American step-dance; and the renowned Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlán, a multi-generational mariachi ensemble often credited with "invent[ing] the modern mariachi," according to UMS.

"A lot of our students haven't had opportunities to go see live musical performances, and so we really want to make sure that our whole school is experiencing that … and learn[ing] about the power of the arts to help people tell stories and preserve their communities' histories," Daugherty says.
In preparation for the Mariachi Herencia de México performance, Daugherty says students have been learning about many different facets associated with mariachi.

"For example, one day we'll do a short lesson about the instruments in mariachi music — identifying them, what they sound like," Daugherty says. "The next day we'll do a lesson on traditional clothing that [is] worn in mariachi groups and why. We'll do another lesson about women in mariachi and LGBTQ+ communities in mariachi. We'll do another lesson about the history of mariachi music in Mexico."
Daugherty says the response from students, parents, and teachers has been overwhelmingly positive every year the program has been offered. (At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, the program was put on hold.)
"Our community members really love it. We try to pick a performance each year that celebrates the communities that we have at Scarlett," Daugherty says.
Daugherty says she hopes this year's program will serve as "a platform for our students, particularly our Spanish-speaking students, to feel like their backgrounds and histories are relevant and they're seeing themselves in their curriculum at our school."
Lessons generally take the form of a short video or reading, which is "accompanied [by] discussion and interactive activities for students," according to Daugherty.
But students also get the chance to contribute to those lessons themselves.
"A lot of the students who have families … from Mexico have been involved in helping to design the curriculum, and they're really excited to share their background knowledge about mariachi music with their classmates," Daugherty says.
One student recorded a video in which they taught their classmates the Spanish-language lyrics to a well-known mariachi song. Another student created a video "to showcase the different instruments" associated with mariachi, Daugherty says.
Scarlett teachers help students develop these lessons, which allows the students to "feel empowered as the experts in the community," according to Daugherty.
In the past, Daugherty has worked with UMS to bring visiting artists to Scarlett to engage directly with students. For example, the last time Scarlett offered the mariachi unit, Mariachi Vargas visited the school themselves. Other times, Daugherty says, Scarlett brings in "local professionals in the community who practice the same art form."
This year, an in-person visit seems unlikely, Daugherty says, though she hasn't given up hope. When Mariachi Herencia was nominated for a Latin Grammy, she says, things became hectic, and the group's performance here had to be rescheduled.
But "the biggest thing," Daugherty says, "is just providing opportunities for students to learn about communities that are represented at our school and to see those and to see their experiences validated."

Tickets for Mariachi Herencia de México's public evening performance are available here.

Natalia Holtzman is a freelance writer based in Ann Arbor. Her work has appeared in publications such as the Minneapolis Star Tribune, the Los Angeles Review of Books, Literary Hub, The Millions, and others.

Photo courtesy of UMS.
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