When Timothy “TJ” Gomez returned to his alma mater, Morenci High School in Morenci, AZ, to teach history, he realized that many of the co-curricular activities that were available in his youth were no longer offered to students. “We had a choir, marching band, concert band, theatre, art,” said Gomez. By the time he returned, most of those programs were gone, and even the band program was dwindling. Anxious to change that, Gomez decided to form a mariachi program at the school. Not sure where to start, Gomez reached out to his cousin, Raymond Gomez, who is an adjunct professor of music and Assistant Director of Mariachi Plata de WNMU who in turn spoke with Bryant Chaffino, Music Director and Director of Mariachi Plata de WNMU.
Since that time, Gomez and Chaffino have collaborated to grow the mariachi program at Morenci. Each year Chaffino and Mariachi Plata de WNMU travel to high schools, including Morenci, to work with the students. “We are always ready to go help wherever we can,” said Chaffino of the outreach that Mariachi Plata de WNMU does with high schools.
These campus trips are mutually beneficial. The high school mariachi students learn from the more experienced WNMU mariachis. In return, said Chaffino, “Students can advocate for the program on campus. They share the processes they have been through: on their instrument, in mariachi, and academically.” In this sense, the trips are partly educational and partly an opportunity to recruit students to WNMU.
They also serve a larger purpose of carrying on the tradition of mariachi, which everyone involved is committed to doing. TJ Gomez comes by his passion for the tradition through his family. “Family members listened to mariachi music. My godfather, my uncle, had a group in Deming and was involved in mariachi there . . . Through my high school years, I watched and listened” to mariachi being performed. “My family is very musically inclined,” Gomez explained, “All of us play an instrument, and when we get together, we have jam sessions.”
Like Gomez, Chaffino also comes from a family with an affinity for music, and his parents had an eclectic musical collection. While he heard mariachi occasionally as a child, it was during an encounter with the music at a church bazaar that he fully listened to it. “I was still young,” he said, “and I was getting goosebumps.” Still, Chaffino did not pursue mariachi at first. He took up the trumpet and in high school, his head band director actively discouraged him from playing mariachi, saying it would ruin his sound. But after a gig with a mariachi group when he was fifteen, he was hooked, and within a couple of years he was playing professionally. “It felt so natural to me. This is where I belonged,” Chaffino said. He sees many of his students experience the same epiphany.
“You can definitely see how connected [students] are to the culture of mariachi and their own personal histories,” said Gomez, adding that mariachi involves “learning music but it’s not just about learning music. It’s about getting [the students] involved in a cultural experience and connecting with their own personal histories, whether they are Latino or not. It gives them something to hold onto.”
Anais Orantez, a second-year English Major and member of Mariachi Plata de WNMU, traveled with the group last year. “I am very excited that [Morenci High School] gets to have a program,” said Orantez, “because it is another place where our music gets to be shared.” She was inspired to go into mariachi when she heard the music performed in middle school and said that she is very happy to now be able to share her passion and experience with upcoming musicians. It feels like she has come “full circle,” she said.
Coming full circle describes more than Orantez’s experience; it could also be said of the partnership between WNMU and Morenci High School. “For me,” Gomez said, “it’s the deep history that I want to pass on to our community and our kids.”
This story is part of a series in honor of Hispanic Heritage Month.