WASHINGTON -- Alejandro Ascencio and seven other members of the Mariachi Master Apprentice Program and its instructors made the 2,700 mile trek from San Fernando, CA to the White House to share the stage with First Lady Michelle Obama on Nov 19th, 2012.
Had the group traveled by car across the United States through the southwest, the music and traditions for which they were being honored would have been easily available on the radio through half their journey on the way to being feted as one of the National Arts and Humanities Youth Program 2012 Awardees.
Coming soon after a brief respite from speaking engagements at end of a tumultuous presidential campaign, Mrs. Obama acknowledged that it took her a few hesitant phrases before settling into a heartfelt welcome that exalted the promise of arts education and her husband’s administration’s continuing commitment to fully developing the human capital of America’s youth.
Through the work of the programs being extolled, Mrs. Obama said, “You see kids who never considered going to college, finally saying to themselves, ‘Well, if I can publish my own writing, if I can create my own artwork, if I can get up in front of all these people and perform anywhere, including the East Room of the White House, well then certainly I can go to college, right?” Mrs. Obama asked. “Of course I can continue my education, expand my ambitions and pursue my dreams.”
The 12 winners were drawn from the 50 finalists of over 350 entries and ran the gamut from programs that featured African dance, poetry, photography, theater, and visual arts to those like Oakland’s Youth Radio that provided training for internships in journalism and other facets of media. The International Spotlight Award was bestowed upon the Western China Cultural Ecology Workshop for its 100 Dong Songs Program designed to preserve the legacy of the Dong people.
Starr Arroyo, a 15-year old Latina from the Bronx, described how being a member of the debate team of the Urban Assembly at the Bronx School of Law, Government and Justice, has opened new vistas for her. She said she is intent on going to college, inspired particularly by her mother and Latina Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, also from the Bronx. Echoing Mrs. Obama’s remarks, Arroyo said that “standing here in the White House, I feel the world is full of possibilities.”
The First Lady said the ceremony honors not only the youth, but the instructors. She was struck, she said, by the motto of Seattle’s Art Corp -- “Make art anyway” -- that it captured the spirit of those dedicated to arts education for youth.
“You teach them, that no matter what life throws your way, if they draw on their own talent and, courage and creativity; if they are persistent, and tenacious and bold – bold – then they can truly make something extraordinary of their lives,” Obama said, “because that's what we expect, nothing but extraordinary.”
For 15-year-old Ascencio, messages about ambition, dreams and being extraordinary were as resonant as the six-stringed guitaron he played during his group’s standing ovation performance during a musical interlude in the ceremony. Resplendent, as were his colleagues, in white-trimmed azure suits of the mariachi, Ascencio explained that his love of music began when he was four or five years-old and that he’s been playing music seriously for about eight years. “I started with the piano and then, from the piano, I started playing the accordion. I started playing Norteno music,” he said, describing the popular music that taps the blend of Mexico’s traditions infused with Czech, German and Polish elements from the European presence in the region in the late 1800s.
“My father, from when he was small, he used to play with the mariachi. He sells houses and he had clients whose son was in this program,” he said of the troupe. “He thought it would be a good idea for me to join as an accordionist in mariachi, which is not very common. So, I go to the program; I audition. I made it as an accordionist, but over the years – I’ve been in the program two and a half years – I’ve learned several instruments: the guitaron, trumpet, vihuela – which is almost like the guitar, and the guitar.”
He has decided he wants to be a professional musician or to be able to use music in his career for the rest of his life. “I’m looking into sound engineering, anything with sound whether it’s live or studio, or even sound effects for movies, studio tracks for movies -- all that stuff,” Ascencio said.
“It is so critical that we preserve arts education in our schools,” Mrs. Obama said. “It is absolutely critical because we know how important it is for our children’s development. We all know, every one of us who are here in this room will do whatever it takes to make sure that our own kids get access to sports and music and arts and recreation. So if it’s good enough for our kids, it’s good enough for all of our kids.”
To see MMAP's performances please visit http://www.sfrcs.com/community-programs/cultural-art-programs/mariachi-master-apprentice-program-mmap
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