The scene playing out on the stage at Ortiz Middle School on a humid May morning is a familiar one to many Houstonians.
Musicians decked out in embroidered pants, wide-brimmed sombreros, and colorful silk ties playing vihuelas, guitarróns, trumpets, and other instruments in a style instantly recognizable as mariachi music.
But what makes this group stand out is that the musicians are all under the age of 14.
“It makes me feel alive,” sixth-grader Joshua Campos said. “My problems, when I play, they just go away. I just think about the music.”
Ortiz Middle School—located in the Glenbrook Valley neighborhood, in the shadow of planes landing at nearby Hobby Airport—was named a magnet school for performing and visual arts four years ago.
This program at Ortiz is just one of ten across Houston Independent School District, spanning elementary, middle, and high schools.
Mariachi music is a genre with deep roots in Mexican culture, dating back centuries there. The program at Ortiz was started to help students embrace the diversity of the school and Houston itself, and to offer students the chance to learn about the traditional form of music and the history and meaning behind the songs.
But it’s about more than just the music.
“It gives them an avenue to be expressive,” said Tina Garcia, the school’s International Baccalaureate coordinator. “It gives them a really good foundation in teamwork and expression and just self-acceptance. The kids just change.”
For many of the students, mariachi is also personal. Miguel Castano-Perez a seventh-grade guitarrón and trumpet player, has only been playing for three months. But the music runs deep in his family history.
“I’m in the mariachi program because my grandpa was a mariachi,” he said. “I learned it from him before he died, and I just wanted to be like him.”
The program’s director, Angel Hernandez, has nearly two decades of mariachi experience. Growing up in Cuba, he became even more familiar with the music once moving to Latin America. After coming to Houston, he knew he wanted to teach the next generation the value of the music.
“Having an instrument in their hands is so positive, from a psychological point of view, in their formative years,” Hernandez said. “When someone holds an instrument, they are not capable of holding a weapon.”
The magnet school status at Ortiz has “transformed the environment,” according to Garcia.
“I love being here after school because when you walk our hallways, you hear music, you hear instruments being played, you see kids on the floor painting murals, you hear voices coming from the stage,” she said.
Back on stage, the students perform a medley of traditional mariachi music. Their teamwork is evident when, during a break, two of the trumpet players put their heads together to figure out a particularly tricky part of the music.
Seeing that teamwork play out is a common—yet always welcomed—sight for Hernandez.
“Playing an instrument creates noble feelings,” he said. “It is collective work, because that is what a mariachi is, a group. A family.”