Omar Perez beams every time he watches his 9-year-old daughter Victoria Isabella play the trumpet in her school's mariachi band. In the year she's been performing, she's transformed from a shy wallflower into a confident artist.
Victoria is part of a 40-member mariachi ensemble at Haddon Avenue Elementary School in Pacoima, the only one of its kind in the Los Angeles School District that is home to a mariachi elective, the school's principal said. The program is credited with boosting attendance and self esteem.
"I hope they use [mariachi] to be well-rounded, go to high school and college, and be able to speak in public," said Omar Perez, a "mariachi dad," whose 7-year-old daughter Sophia is also in the mariachi program.
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Every day the children, ages 6-11, practice playing the trumpets, guitarrons -- big guitars -- and vihuelas -- small guitars. The little mariachis play local parades and arts festivals. Their after-school class started two years ago with $2,000 worth of instruments. It ballooned after a $30,000 donation made last year by Starbucks through a Haddon alumna, said the school's principal, Richard Ramos.
It's good for the kids, said Ramos.
"It's food for the soul," he said.
The style of music, which originated in western Mexico in the 1800s, is a central part of Pacoima's largely Latino population.
The program has a wait-list 50 names long, making it the most competitive of the school's 12 enrichment clubs.
The band is booked. They're scheduled to play at two Mother's Day dinners on Tuesday night and at a high school event over the weekend. The band is so busy they have had to turn down requests for gigs.
It's so popular that Ramos wants to expand the program to five days a week.
The program has been life-changing for Ramos' students, especially as public schools cut arts programs.
Ramos said a third grader who once visited the principal's office for bad behavior is now seeing him for different reasons.
"The only time he's in my office is to tell me how much fun he had performing for the community and the notes he's learning," said Ramos.