Podcast: For Mexican Immigrant Children in NY, Mariachi Music Helps to Maintain Cultural Ties

From left to right, Dayanara Reyes, Ramon Ponce, and Donaldo Reyes prepare for a performance in Manhattan in June 2012. Dayanara and Donaldo are Ramon’s students at the Mariachi Academy of New York. (Photo: Justin Mitchell/Fi2W)

Hear the sounds of the Mariachi Academy of New York in this podcast. Fi2W executive producer John Rudolph speaks with academy founders Ramon Ponce and his father, Ramon Sr., as well as Donaldo and Dayanara Reyes, two students at the academy. They even play us a song!

For Ramon Ponce, mariachi music is a way of life.  For as long as he can remember Ramon has been steeped in this form of Mexican folk music, with its lively arrangements, flashy costumes, and distinctive style.

“I grew up with mariachi music, listening to mariachi music, especially having my dad at my side,” he told Fi2W.  “He’s been playing mariachi music for over 50 years.”

“We used to live right across the street from a plaza, so you could hear the trumpets and the guitars,” he recalled.  “Mariachi music had been in my life since I was born, I guess.  It means a lot to me.”

Here, in a Fi2W web extra, are Ponce and his father, also named Ramon Ponce, performing a popular Mexican folk song:

When Ramon was 13, his father moved to New York City to play in a mariachi band here.  Soon after, Ramon was accepted at LaGuardia High School (now known as LaGuardia Arts), a school for students with talent in the fine arts, and he ended up staying in New York.

Now, Ramon plays with his father in Mariachi Real de Mexico, a band that has performed at the New York Stock Exchange and Carnegie Hall, as well as countless parties, marriages and other events.

Ramon Ponce and his students arrive at a performance dressed in traditional mariachi costumes. The costumes are custom made for each student. (Photo: Justin Mitchell/Fi2w)

In addition to performing, both Ramon and his father have a passion for teaching.  Together, they run the Mariachi Academy of New York, where young New Yorkers learn the music and culture of the mariachis.

“My father, back in Mexico, had his own little program,” Ramon said.  “He’s always wanting to give back to the community—especially kids.”

They created the Academy in 2002.  Initially, the school was supported by grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Gildor Foundation and the Pumpkin Foundation, and in recent years has gotten funding from the New York State Council on the Arts and the Union Square Awards.

Classes are held at St. Paul’s School, a Catholic elementary and junior high school in El Barrio, the legendary Latino neighborhood in Upper Manhattan.  Students come after school a few days a week to take classes in guitar, trumpet, violin, and music theory.  Since the Mariachi Academy opened, they have taught over 500 students.

“The whole idea behind the Mariachi Academy of New York is not to create 100-plus musicians, but really to connect students to their roots through mariachi music,” Ramon said.

New York has seen a surge in immigration from Mexico in recent years. Many of these immigrants have had children in the United States, and they see the academy as a way to connect their children to Mexican culture.

“As a person, you have to know where you’re from, and you have to be proud of who you are,” Ponce told Fi2W. “You have to be proud of your music, your culture, everything that belongs to you. Because that makes you who you are.”

Here is an exclusive audio slideshow taking you inside the Mariachi Academy of New York at St. Paul’s School, Manhattan:

Fi2W is supported by the New York Community Trust and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation with additional support from the Ralph E. Odgen Foundation and the Sirus Fund.

AboutJustin Mitchell
Justin Mitchell was born and raised in Fairbanks, Alaska. He graduated from the University of Northern Colorado in 2002 with a degree in theater, and worked as an ESL teacher in the Czech Republic, Cambodia, and Korea. He is now a student at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism with a focus in international journalism. Follow him on Twitter @mittinjuschell.