‘Nuestra Herencia’: How a Chicago Schools Mariachi Group Landed a Latin Grammy Nomination


Mariachi Herencia de Mexico is comprised of students from Chicago’s immigrant barrios. (Meg Rachel / Courtesy Of Mariachi Youth Heritage)

A top-selling mariachi album landed a prestigious Latin Grammy nomination. Its main singers? They’re public school kids from Chicago.

The unlikely story started with an idea that came to Chicago resident César Maldonado.

Born in the Brighton Park area of the city, Maldonado’s parents were immigrants from Durango, Mexico. His parents were factory workers and did not know English. Maldonado excelled in school, and at 33, is a successful investment banker living in Chicago.

Maldonado wanted to give back, and he remembered that his elementary school never offered music or arts classes. He decided this is where he could make a difference for the next generation of young Mexican-Americans.

Maldonado did not have a music background, except for a deep appreciation for mariachi music — his parents played it constantly on the radio while he was growing up. So he decided to found the Mariachi Heritage Foundation (MHF) in 2013. Since then, the non-profit has grown to incorporate mariachi music education in the curriculum of eight of Chicago’s public schools, involving 2,100 students in grades 3 through 8.

As part of one of MHF’s programs, sixteen students, ages 11–to 18, were chosen, by audition, to take part in creating the group’s debut album, “Nuestra Herencia” (“Our Heritage”). After only about a year playing together, the group’s album was released this past May — and then it just took off.

“Nuestra Herencia” reached #2 Top Latin Album on iTunes– marking it one of the most successful mariachi album releases in history. It’s also believed to be the first major mariachi recordings released by a student ensemble in the U.S. It nabbed a Latin Grammy nomination in the “Best Ranchero/Mariachi Album” category.

“It’s beyond anything we thought to accomplish,” Maldonado told NBC Latino, adding that the group also recently played at the prestigious Kennedy Center to celebrate Mexican Independence Day with world-renowned musicians from both sides of the border. “These kids have a passion for the music.”

“Nuestra Herencia” was produced and arranged by Los Angeles mariachi master José Hernandez. It also features celebrated guest musicians from Mexico such as, Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlán, and the top three Los Angeles ensembles, Los Camperos, Sol de México, and the all-female Reyna de Los Angeles recorded vocals on the album. The CD also includes tributes to Juan Gabriel and José Alfredo Jiménez.

“I tell people that mariachi is a sleeping giant in this country,” Hernandez said in a statement. “This album might open people’s eyes to what’s happening to mariachi education in this country. It’s really growing.”

 Mariachi Youth Heritage’s debut album was ranked No. 2 in its first week on iTunes’ Latin chart.  (Meg Rachel / Courtesy of Mariachi Herencia De Mexico)

According to the U.S. Census, Chicago’s Hispanic population grew by 17,000, from 2015 to 2016, and is now the second-largest ethnic group in the city (30 percent of the population). Maldonado hopes that through the integratiion of mariachi into the schools’ curriculums, it will help the students form a connection to their roots and thus increase their pride and self-esteem.

Maldonado said the idea for album came about in 2016, when the Latin Grammys, for the first time, suspended the mariachi genre for not having enough submissions.

“I always like to push the envelope,” Maldonado said. “Mariachi as a genre has been losing a following, because the big names have gone away or passed away —so you don’t really listen to it on the radio,” he said. “I decided to do an album with the students as a challenge for them.”

Maldonado hired the acclaimed José Hernandez and brought him to Chicago four times to work with the students.

“I was extremely proud with how much they learned and absorbed,” said Maldonado. “José really cares about mariachi education — he spends a lot of time traveling around the country educating in schools,” he said. “Mariachi is now in schools in Idaho, Wisconsin…It’s becoming a relevant music form which is engaging students.”

Maldonado is excited for the future, for both the genre and his band.

“We’re going to be touring on the weekends,” said Maldonado. “Next summer, we’re going to do a European tour, and our next album will be recorded in December, during Christmas break in LA, and it should be ready by the spring.”

Maldonado thinks mariachi is almost becoming more popular in the U.S. than in its native Mexico.

“Currently Mexico seems to favor banda, norteño, or American or European pop, and there hasn’t been a huge presence in promoting mariachi music,” explained Maldonado. “In the U.S., mariachi has been growing, because schools have committed to teaching it to its students.”

Originally published on NBCNews.com.


The Lives of Migrant Farmerworkers’ Children Focus of ‘East of Salinas’

When we think about where our food comes from, we don’t often think about what our farm workers go through on a daily basis, let alone their children.

Award-winning filmmaker Laura Pacheco thought about it for the first time after reading a New York Times article in 2011. The story was about Oscar Ramos, a third grade teacher in Salinas, California, who came from a migrant family. Ramos teaches in Sherwood Elementary School, where half of his class is made up of children of migrant farmworker families. Often these children have to move several times a year to follow the harvest and have to wake up at 3am to go to a babysitter, before school, so their parents can go work in the fields.

“I couldn’t stop thinking about it,” said Pacheco. “He knows what’s missing in these kids’ lives,” said Pacheco about Ramos.

There are more than 2 million farmworkers in the U.S., and their median wage is a little over $9 an hour. Immigrant farmworkers (approximately 75 percent are coming from Mexico) often leave their home countries to seek a better life for their families. However, the average migrant child may attend as many as three different schools in one year, often making it difficult for a child to advance to the next grade level.

'East of Salinas' producer/director Laura Pacheco  (Courtesy ITVS)

‘East of Salinas’ producer/director Laura Pacheco (Courtesy ITVS)

Pacheco was so intrigued by these figures that she wrote Mr. Ramos and told him she’d like to meet and talk to him about making a film. Together with co-director Jackie Mow, they decided to focus on one family, and one boy in particular, José Anzaldo.

“We decided to follow one to get an intimate look of what a migrant family is like in America,” says Pacheco.

After three years of filming, their film, “East of Salinas” will be premiering on PBS’ Independent Lens on Monday, December 28th. (10pET, see PBS for local listings).

Jose’s mother, Maria, is from Mexicali. She used to work in a clothing factory, but she couldn’t support herself and her children. Jose’s stepfather is from El Salvador, where he also did agricultural work, but he says, “You can live there, but you were always hungry.”

Coming to the U.S., the family still often goes to bed hungry, but not as much. José loves school, especially math, but he is one of two million undocumented children living in the U.S. today. He is María’s only son who was not born in the U.S. – so she worries about his undocumented status and what that portends for his future.

Pacheco and Mow were able to follow José around since the 3rd grade. He’s already attended more than five schools and is now in 7th grade. He’s continuing to do really well in school, said Pacheco.

“In the beginning, he’s a little naive about his situation, and at the end he becomes more aware,” said Pacheco. “It’s really hard to see someone’s potential, and then leave and not know if he’s going to have food the next day – Oscar (his teacher) still goes to see them and takes the boys to the movies.”

Teacher Oscar Ramos takes 5th and 6th graders, including José Anzaldo, to visit UC Berkeley, part of the 'East of Salinas' documentary.  (Courtesy ITVS)

Teacher Oscar Ramos takes 5th and 6th graders, including José Anzaldo, to visit UC Berkeley, part of the ‘East of Salinas’ documentary. (Courtesy ITVS)

His teacher Oscar Ramos sees the little boy’s promise and wants to help him get ahead. The question is, what opportunities will be available for children like José, a bright student who is undocumented?

Pacheco hopes viewers take away certain things from watching the film such as what education is like for farmworker children and where our food is coming from.

“But if I had to say one thing, I hope José lives in people’s hearts,” says Pacheco. “Immigration is a hot topic right now. It gets so polarized. People feel so righteous on both sides of the debate, but you can see who the kids are that are going to make America great and should be given an opportunity.”

“These are the families who are picking food for America,” says Pacheco. “We should know what their lives are like.”

Originally published on NBCNews.com.