WOODBURN, Ore. (KOIN) — Students trickle into the music room at Woodburn High School. One boy strums a modern tune on the vihuela. Another taps out a different beat against his guitar. There’s laughter and talking and then, as soon as band director Nadia Maksimov starts class, they fall silent. It’s mesmerizing when they start playing as a mariachi.
They’re playing songs that have been passed from generation to generation, Maksimov said. “Songs that, for these students, their parents sang or listened to and their grandparents, so on and so forth.”
Latino students make up the majority of WHS’s population, but almost all of the students joined the band without any prior mariachi experience.
“I didn’t have any clue about music or anything, so I pretty much got thrown into the water,” senior Eddy Gomez said. He just wanted to try something new. “I remember the old band director saying you can be here but you have to put a lot of work and effort into it … It’s become like my greatest passion now.”
First in the state
Woodburn was the first high school in Oregon to create a mariachi program. It started 16 years ago, partly as a way to get more Latino students involved in band, Maksimov said.
“It was also to reflect the culture and to celebrate the culture of Woodburn,” she said. “And it has done that.”
Ask any band member why mariachi is important to them, and they will likely mention culture.
“It’s very unique to have such a group like this in a small little town in Oregon,” sophomore Aaron Espinoza said. “Being able to represent our heritage and culture here through our music really does help get our voice out there.”
Playing in Woodburn in honor of Hispanic Heritage Month was a special moment recently for Priscila Arechiga.
“We had like a little celebration downtown, Arechiga said. “I feel like it really brought the whole community together and it made you so proud to be Mexican.”
The students estimate they do around 40 performances a year all over Oregon and sometimes in Washington. They performed at the state capitol a couple weeks ago for Hispanic Heritage Month. They also go to universities, community events and even private events. The gigs help cover costs for buses, the suits that students wear, and the instruments, which are quite expensive.
Even though most of the students just joined for fun, the tradition makes them feel obligated to play their best.
“You’re representing your culture and your heritage so it’s really important to just stand those values pretty high,” Gomez said.
Senior Ana Olazaran, who moved here from Mexico when she was 7, said mariachi helps keep her traditions alive.
Freshman Yesenia Giron used to watch the mariachi play when she was a child. Now, she’s finally old enough to join the beginning mariachi class, and hopes to be ready to perform later this year. She said she is excited for her family to be able to watch her play the traditional music.
“A big portion of the town is Mexican-American populated so it’s a really cool experience when you see all the smiles on people’s faces when they see that they’re represented at the school as a mariachi band,” junior Jonathan Swenson said.
Remembering their roots
Of course, none of this would be possible without the efforts of Brian Gingerich, the band director who started the mariachi program 16 years ago. He retired at the end of last year, passing the baton to his former student.
“He’s a legacy,” Maksimov said. “Throughout college he was somewhat of a mentor for me.” Even now, she said she calls him for advice about running the band.
All of the students appreciate the opportunity Gingerich gave them through mariachi.
“He made a great impact in our lives,” Gomez said. “He pretty much gave us the motivation to be where we are right now and he told us that we would be fine even when he left and retired because of what we do.”
If you’re interested in seeing the mariachi perform, check them out on Facebook.
Also, the entire Woodburn band program has seen a huge increase in student participation, according to Maksimov. They’re gladly accepting donated instruments, particularly flutes, trumpets and clarinets. If you have an instrument to spare, email email@example.com.Remember to follow KOIN 6 News on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Download our free news and weather apps for the latest headlines and forecast information.