Mariachi Herencia de Mexico take both lanes in Pilsen. Credit: Carolina Sanchez

The Chicago schoolkids who make up Mariachi Herencia de Mexico had a hell of a summer in 2017. The band, whose members range in age from 11 to 18, had formed in March 2016, and last May they released their first record, Nuestra Herencia. It debuted at number two on iTunes’ U.S. Latino Albums chart, and in July the group appeared with crossover Mexican-American singer Lila Downs at Ravinia. In August they performed at the prestigious Joe’s Pub in New York, then flew to Guadalajara, Mexico, to play a major mariachi festival. On September 16, the kids participated in a Mexican Independence Day concert at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., and that same day Chicago classical-music station WFMT premiered an hour-long episode of its Introductions program focused on the group. They flew back home in time for school on Monday, and less than a week later they performed as part of Hispanic Heritage Night during a White Sox game.

The Sox are among Mariachi Herencia de Mexico’s many corporate sponsors, and this month the band returned to Guaranteed Rate Field for Cinco de Mayo, performing a short set and then the national anthem before a game with the Minnesota Twins. During an afternoon sound check, White Sox pitcher Miguel Gonzalez, nicknamed “El Mariachi” for his singing voice, sat in with the group for impromptu renditions of hits by ranchera superstar Vicente Fernandez. On Monday, the kids were once again back at school.

Mariachi Herencia de Mexico (herencia means “heritage”) currently involves 90 students at three skill levels, and the band that appears onstage consists of 16 advanced and intermediate players drawn from that larger group. Nearly all the members are at least a couple years from graduation, and during the 2018-’19 school year they’ll be out of town most weekends, performing gigs all around the country. They’re managed by IMG Artists, a huge international talent agency that also represents the likes of Japanese taiko troupe Kodo, Spanish flamenco star Diego el Cigala, and Indian tabla virtuoso Zakir Hussain.

Before the current school year ends, though, the group will release their second album, Herencia de la Tierra Mía. They recorded it in Chicago with Grammy-winning producer Javier Limón, whose previous clients include Bebo Valdes, Buika, Paco de Lucia, and Alejandro Sanz. Downs makes a cameo appearance, as does veteran Mexican mariachi singer Aida Cuevas, and the record closes with a medley of two Selena hits: “Dreaming of You” and “I Could Fall in Love.” Herencia de la Tierra Mía comes out Friday, May 25, and Mariachi Herencia de Mexico celebrate with a concert at the National Museum of Mexican Art on Sunday, May 27.

Mariachi Herencia de Mexico

Sun 5/27, 7 PM, National Museum of Mexican Art, 1852 W. 19th, $25, all-ages

Bryana Martínez, a 15-year-old violinist in the group, attends Mother McAuley Liberal Arts High School on the city’s heavily Mexican-American southwest side, where she says she’s known as “the mariachi girl.” Sometimes she has to change into her band uniform, or traje, before she leaves school. “Getting ready for a gig and walking through the hallways in my traje brings me a lot of happiness—about my family, my heritage, and Mexico,” she says. Some of her classmates have music by Mariachi Herencia de Mexico on their phones, and that’s not the only way they stand behind her. “Whenever I have a gig after school, they’ll come to the bathroom and help me do my makeup,” she says. “They fully support me.”

Mariachi music is still easy to hear in Chicago, but it has long been surpassed in popularity by other regional Mexican pop styles, including norteño and banda. Mariachi bands, with their colorful matching costumes and oversize sombreros, are often invoked by mainstream culture to stereotype “Mexican music.” In especially cartoony instances, the singers’ sorrowful cries are made to sound like drunken laughter—a disrespectful if not racist way to treat a sophisticated art form whose complex arrangements (usually for violins, trumpets, and several sizes of guitar) require considerable technical skill.

Cesar Maldonado, whose efforts as a booster of mariachi music led to the creation of Mariachi Herencia de Mexico, was born in Chicago in 1984 and grew up in the southwest-side neighborhood of Brighton Park. His parents arrived in the city as undocumented immigrants in the mid-70s and later became permanent residents—they’re from the same town in the state of Durango, but didn’t meet till they got here. Maldonado listened to mariachi music all the time as a kid, but as an adult—after he’d finished college and established himself as an investment banker—he saw that its culture was fading, especially in the States. The music was no longer a dominant commercial force, the big show bands were dying off, and the stars of the genre were retiring or going pop. He started thinking about how he could give back to a community that had nurtured him for so long.

“Mexican culture and folklore was always part of my life growing up,” says Maldonado. Now 34, he became involved in folkloric dancing when he was four years old, and as a freshman in high school he met his future wife at a dance competition. “Mariachi was always playing on the radio, and I always had an almost purist relationship with the music through college.” He loved the records his father played around the house—he especially remembers the boleros that vocal trio Los Panchos recorded in the 1960s with American pop singer Eydie Gormé. “When I started thinking about doing something for the community that was different, mariachi was the thing,” he says. “My whole life I’ve been hyped about the music—why not do that?”

Mariachi Herencia de Mexico perform out of uniform at the Mi Tierra restaurant in Little Village this spring.
Mariachi Herencia de Mexico perform out of uniform at the Mi Tierra restaurant in Little Village this spring.Credit: Carolina Sanchez

Maldonado’s childhood impressed upon him the importance of learning to operate comfortably outside Mexican-American neighborhoods. His parents had come to rely on his ability to translate from Spanish by the time he was six, when he accompanied them to open their first bank account. “Everything they needed to assimilate to the Brighton Park community, they needed me or some third party to help them,” he says. He was accepted to Jones College Prep in 1998, the first year it offered selective enrollment, but his parents were reluctant to let him make the commute. “Getting on the bus every morning at 39th and Sacramento and going to the train station on 35th and Archer and taking the Orange Line downtown every day freaked out my parents,” he says. “We had never been downtown. Because I went to Jones, my family understood what downtown was.”

While in high school Maldonado landed an internship at Merrill Lynch. “The highlight of my day each day was to walk from Jones to the Sears Tower and be in the real world,” he says. “I loved it.” A guidance counselor urged him to apply for a Charles Scholarship from Davidson College in North Carolina, a full-ride award funded by tech businessman John McCartney and geared toward “Latino and Hispanic students” from Chicago Public Schools. His parents resisted again, and when he won the scholarship and headed off to school in fall 2002, his mother didn’t speak to him for his first semester away. He double majored in economics and political science with a minor in Spanish, spending two semesters in Monterey, Mexico. Upon graduating in 2006, he accepted a position with J.P. Morgan in New York because it allowed him to move back to Chicago after a year. While in New York he began recruiting and interviewing applicants for the Charles Scholarship, and he’s continued to do that volunteer work since returning in May 2007.

Maldonado left J.P. Morgan in 2011 to become vice president of Chicago-based Cabrera Capital Markets (he’s now partner and managing director at Valdés & Moreno). At that point he decided he wanted to do something to preserve the legacy of mariachi, and in 2012 he established the nonprofit Mariachi Heritage Foundation to introduce the music to Mexican-American children in Chicago schools—particularly elementary schools on the southwest side that had no music programs of their own.

Before the organization even received its 501(c)3 status, Maldonado began programming local concerts by top-flight mariachi artists to raise money. He wanted to develop a formal curriculum to teach mariachi the way band and orchestra are taught in other city schools, and that wouldn’t be cheap. In the course of booking those fund-raising concerts, he established himself as an important mariachi promoter, working with prominent venues (the Harris Theater, the Auditorium Theatre) and important U.S. and Mexican artists such as Downs, Cuevas, Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlan, Mariachi los Camperos, and Mariachi Cobre. Since 2015 he’s also presented a free annual mariachi festival in Millennium Park, which this year falls on June 24—and includes a set by Mariachi Herencia de Mexico.

Getting the schools on board with the MHF’s mission was another task entirely. In early 2013, Maldonado met with former CPS CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett, but he says those talks didn’t go anywhere. He decided to develop the curriculum before trying again, enlisting DePaul University education professor Barbara Radner for the job, and by spring 2014 CPS had signed on to launch the MHF program in five schools that fall.

That summer Maldonado enlisted five teachers, one for each school. Four were locals, and the fifth was a master musician from California he’d met by booking concerts: Roberto Martinez of Mariachi Cobre, which has been a resident ensemble at Epcot Center for 36 years. Martinez moved to Chicago, and all five earned their certifications as instructors.

Maldonado saw mariachi as a way to reach whole families, not just students. “The main reason I chose mariachi wasn’t just because of the music, but because I wanted to find something where parents could become involved in school—so it needed to be something they saw as relevant and didn’t make them feel inferior,” he says. “But it could be something we could assess kids with and set curriculum goals, and serve as a way to empower them too.”

Mariachi Herencia de Mexico open for Los Lobos at Joe’s Live in Rosemont on April 5.
Mariachi Herencia de Mexico open for Los Lobos at Joe’s Live in Rosemont on April 5.Credit: Carolina Sanchez

The MHF raised money not just with concerts but also from a growing list of corporate sponsors—which now includes the Sox as well as Xfinity, V&V Supremo Foods, Wintrust Community Banks, and ComEd. It bought violins and eventually guitars for students, who ranged from third to eighth grade. (Members of Mariachi Herencia de Mexico can stay on longer.) In fall 2015, when the program launched, the MHF and CPS shared expenses evenly, but each year the schools have picked up a bigger share of the tab, helping the MHF expand—eight schools are now involved, with a total of 2,100 eligible students, up from an initial five. Maldonado is working on bringing in two high schools next year.

By early 2016, partway through the program’s second year, Maldonado was so impressed by the students’ performance that he tried to persuade CPS to start an all-city mariachi program. When that failed, he took it upon himself, launching what would become Mariachi Herencia de Mexico. “I had kids that were kicking ass, and I wanted to offer a classroom setting where they would be challenged more musically,” he says.

That February he began auditioning musicians. At first he confined himself to students enrolled in the classes he’d developed, but within a month or so he’d started inviting other kids from the city too. He recruited Martinez and Joaquin Rodriguez (of long-running California group Mariachi Sol de Mexico) to serve as musical directors. In late March the nascent band got an invitation from the White Sox to play the national anthem at a game on April 23—which meant Maldonado had to get the students’ costumes designed and made in a hurry.

The band rehearsed twice a week, once at the National Museum of Mexican Art and once at Back of the Yards College Prep, and Maldonado was sufficiently impressed by the speed of their progress that he arranged for them to make a recording. He booked sessions between fall 2016 and spring 2017 at a community-oriented Pilsen studio called the Remix Project and hired veteran producer José Hernández. The point of releasing Nuestra Herencia wasn’t first and foremost to sell copies but rather to make the band more exciting for the students by giving them something tangible to share. “How cool would it be for the kids to pull out their phones and say, ‘Look!'” Maldonado says.

Surprising everyone involved, the album came within one position of topping iTunes’ U.S. Latino Albums chart, bested only by the latest from international superstar Juanes. Its peak lasted only four days, but the record would later earn a Latin Grammy nomination. The first time I heard it, I had trouble believing that such polished music had been made by teenagers. The new album, Herencia de la Tierra Mía, is even better. It has a fuller sound and relatively interesting ideas and arrangements—Selena songs are definitely not part of mariachi tradition, and neither is the flamenco guitar that Limón added to “Carlos Arruza.” Mexican harp master Ivan Velasco also guests on “Jarocho I,” a medley of traditional songs from his home state of Veracruz.

“Mariachi music is put into the Mexican regional category, so we have to compete with the commercial norteño and banda music that dominates the radio,” Maldonado says. “Mariachi is more sophisticated—it’s an orchestra. It needs to go in world music. And my idea with this album, even before we hired Javier Limón, was to release this as a world-music album. If this music is going to survive and if it’s going to have a shot at playing at big jazz festivals or with flamenco artists or Latin-jazz artists, we have to be in world music.”

That’s a tall order, in no small part because so many Americans still dismiss mariachi as a quaint and kitschy Mexican tradition. But considering that the MFH’s annual budget has grown to $850,000 from $60,000 its first year, it’d be foolish to doubt Maldonado’s commitment. All the money that Mariachi Herencia de Mexico makes—from music sales, from the shows that turn a profit after the daunting travel expenses of a 16-piece ensemble have been met—gets reinvested into the project. (The kids aren’t employees of the Mariachi Heritage Foundation, so it can’t pay them directly.) When there’s enough of a surplus, Maldonado intends to spend it by developing scholarships. He declined to be photographed for this story, preferring to keep the focus on the musicians.

“I set the bar really high for the team and the kids, because I know they can do it,” Maldonado says. “I see myself in these kids. A lot of them are growing up with parents who were like mine, so sometimes the parents are resistant. We’ve been on a really fast pace, and I understand why parents are like, ‘Whoa!’—it’s new for all of us. The metaphor I use with the kids is ‘the bubble,’ and every time I bring it up they all go, ‘Here we go again.’ But we grow up in a four-block radius and we don’t see past it. We use all of these experiences—recording, releasing records, getting a Grammy nomination, traveling all over the country and Mexico—to expand that bubble and let them realize there’s a whole world out there, and they need to think that it’s all there for them.”

Mariachi Herencia de Mexico
Mariachi Herencia de MexicoCredit: Carolina Sanchez

The music is also making converts. Guitarist Eric Nieto, a 16-year-old at Curie Metropolitan High School, says he joined Mariachi Herencia de Mexico to make his father proud—but now he’s become a mariachi fan himself, and he’s spreading the word. “Whenever I’m with my friends, I try to listen to mariachi—they all like rap,” he says. The group’s success has definitely gotten his classmates’ attention. “They say, ‘Oh snap, he’s doing all this cool stuff, maybe we should listen to it sometimes.’ And they actually do listen to it—one of my friends thanked me for introducing him to it.”  v