When I was pregnant, it was encouraged that I talk to my belly and to listen to music as much as possible as it can serve for calming and soothing your baby. A 2016 study at the University of Southern California’s Brain and Creativity Institute found that musical experiences in childhood can actually accelerate brain development, particularly in the areas of language acquisition and reading skills. According to the National Association of Music Merchants Foundation (NAMM Foundation), learning to play an instrument can improve mathematical learning and even increase SAT scores.
I did not grow up playing an instrument so I do not have first hand experience on the benefits of playing an instrument, but I do know that music can be soothing, healing and a way to reconnect to cultura. Thursday, July 28th marked the conclusion of a three-week long Mariachi summer camp at my alma mater, Lawrence Cook Middle School. Cook Middle School is located at the heart of the mostly Latino populated Santa Rosa, California. In this district, at least 45% of students are Latino. However, this year, the Mariachi camp has expanded to three other schools, including Cloverdale, California where the Latino population has increased rapidly.
The students who participated in the camp were between the ages of nine – seventeen, entering 4th – 11th graders. Each student was provided with an instrument at no cost. They attended the camp for three weeks, Monday through Friday from 8:30am to 1:30pm, again at no cost. They did have to apply for the camp. They are not all Latino, but about 80% are of Mexican descent. The camp concluded with a reception and performing at the Luther Burbank Center in Santa Rosa.
The first year this program took place was in 2015. At the same time an art program, that still exists today, was developed thanks to Maria de los Angeles, and so the reception was a combination of music and art, the participants being the artist and the musicians. The Mariachi camp in Santa Rosa is deemed the first of its kind and the only camp that teaches mariachi to children and young adults. Just like the art program, the Mariachi camp came to be because of the lack of access and affordability to music classes for children and young adults in this neighborhood.
When I was growing up, attending camp was not an affordable option. Jose Soto, the founder and program director, felt the same way, adding that these students deserve to have something this wonderful accessible to them. Jose is a student at Sonoma State University in the music department as well as a Mariachi musician and singer. His family is from Guadalajara, Jalisco. Jose directs the program and is a teacher as well, but he also has the support of other members of Mariachi Barragan, the group he performs with on the weekends. Another member that earned an internship is Sara Flores, a recent alumna of Sonoma State University music department, who is planning to be a music teacher. Sara is also a former McNair scholar that conducted research on students’ participation in the camp. As her advisor in the McNair program, I shared with her this opportunity to intern with the camp and to my surprise Luther Burbank Center had opened positions for paid interns and she was one of the first to be selected to be part of it. We were both ecstatic about this opportunity. More than anything because while she is a trained musician, just like Jose is, they both understand the value of teaching and bringing this type of musical training to the students.
The Mariachi camp in Santa Rosa is not the typical music camp, this is music with soul, the soul of Mexico. Students learn how to strum the guitarrón — the big bass guitar that’s a trademark of mariachi music — to songs in Spanish that are familiar to their own families and connects them to a place that many might not know personally. The first year of this camp, I took my son and he loved the music, dancing to every song played that day. The students learn a total of five ballads, including “De Colores”, “Cielito Lindo” and “La Cucaracha.” It was a beautiful sight to watch and listen to all these students play and sing musica con corazón that reminds us of our heritage. I hope that this camp stays in existence for my son to take part in. It has a tremendous value and recognizes the richness of Mexican culture.
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