Pint-sized musicians ranging from transitional kindergarten to fifth grade have been wowing audiences with a pitch-perfect sound, astounding stage presence, and a rich homage to deep cultural roots.
Mariachi Leones de Haddon (Mariachi Lions of Haddon) – also known as Mariachi Haddon is a 40-member ensemble originally formed by the nonprofit Woodcraft Rangers that brilliantly showcases musical styles from 1800s Western Mexico with the rich sounds of voices, guitars, trumpets, violins, and a harp that stands taller than the young musician who plays it.
When Richard Ramos became principal of Haddon Avenue Elementary in 2014, he lobbied to take the school in new directions, focusing on science, technology, engineering, the arts, and mathematics. The school has now been rebranded as Haddon STEAM Academy.
“Being Mexican-American myself, I remember growing up to mariachi music,” Ramos said. “It’s the same for many people across Pacoima, as the majority of our residents are Latino and many are of Mexican heritage.”
The school is celebrated for its unique speech and debate programs and a robotics team that took top prize at last year’s Rally in the Valley tournament. When it came to building a strong arts program, Ramos explained that as possibilities arose, it was the intersection among art, history, and culture that drove the development of Haddon Mariachi.
“We considered ideas like a string orchestra,” Ramos said, “But, we wanted something that was culturally relevant. By studying mariachi, these kids are not only getting the fundamentals of music education, they’re able to connect in a profound way with their families, their community and their heritage.”
As school districts across the state are transitioning to more local control and accountability over budget decisions, Haddon made the decision to invest in a full-time music teacher. Diana Benetiz provides instruction on vocals, brass, and string instruments. Students who really stand out are invited to participate in Mariachi Haddon.
“The students learn the basics of music instrumentation. But, more importantly, they’re learning a valuable means of expression,” Benitez said. “Many of the students who tend to keep to themselves and don’t talk a lot are soon transformed into terrific performers who feel they are part of something special. They find the motivation to work hard and find the means to create something beautiful that is part of themselves, their families and their culture.”
Benitez also spoke of the enthusiastic support the program receives from parents and community members, a fact that is evident by the parents who are around every day to help the program thrive.
“A lot of schools have ‘soccer moms,’” Ramos said. “We have ‘mariachi moms’ and ‘mariachi dads.’”
Mom Virginia Martinez, who volunteers regularly at the school, said the mariachi program has transformed her son.
“He has become more focused, more exited about coming to school, and just more confident,” Martinez said. “Most importantly, he is working harder at his studies and is successful in all his classes.”
Ramos echoed the sentiment talking about how participating students tend to show up less often to his office.
“The students in this program tend to have fewer problems in the classroom and on the playground,” he said. “I still see them in my office from time to time. But, it’s not because they’re in trouble. It’s because they want to tell me how much they love the program.”
The phenomenon the group has become didn’t happen overnight.
Michele Caputo, who attended Haddon Elementary years ago and is now a regional manager for Starbucks, helped involve her former school in the company’s Global Month of Service program in April 2015. More than 200 volunteers assisted in a beautification project, applying fresh coats of paint and adding colorful murals to the campus.
The mariachis kicked off the day of beautification and were noticed by producers of NBC’s “The Voice” who sent their top eight contestants to perform at the event as a surprise to the students. “Voice” celebrities Gwen Stefani and Pharrel Williams surprised the school as well with a donation of top-quality hand-crafted instruments. A segment about the group was broadcast on the program and seen by viewers nationwide. School Board member Mónica Ratliff visited the school and provided funds for the trajes – the traditional costumes the musicians wear when performing.
The group has been invited to perform at festivals, parades, and other events, and is now in such high demand that they are unable to accommodate all requests for appearances. They recently joined fellow musicians from around Southern California to perform at the half-time show at the Club América vs. Pumas soccer match in Carson. On Dec. 3, they will perform with Mariachi Garibaldi de Jaime Cuellar at the Valley Performing Arts Center.
“This is a huge opportunity for our kids and for Pacoima,” Ramos said. “Some professional adult groups perform their whole careers and do not get the same opportunities as these kids have. They have worked incredibly hard and deserve the recognition they are receiving. We are truly honored and incredibly proud of our students.”