Last month, the West Liberty Board of Education learned more about the school district’s mariachi band “Los Cometas Mariachi” during a board meeting.
“We were founded in February 2021,” said West Liberty High School band director Ashley Smith.
Smith applied for a racial justice grant through the Community Foundation of Greater Muscatine, she said. The application was approved. The mariachi program received $7,500.
With the grant funds, instruments were purchased and instructors were hired.
“We also brought in some visiting artists to come work with us,” Smith said.
The program was also funded through private donations as well, she added.
In the past two years, Los Cometas Mariachi has performed at events in the Quad Cities and in Muscatine County. Hispanic Heritage Month seems to be their busiest time of the year, Smith said.
Since the program started, Smith has taught over 500 hours of mariachi music to students and the demographic of students involved in the instrumental music program has changed.
“In 2019, before we had established mariachi the Hispanic demographic in the band was 30 percent and Latino in the building we’re closer to 60 percent,” Smith said. “I saw that as problem and a challenge as how could I get more students to participate in band so it looks like the same demographic as the rest of the building.”
She talked with LULAC chapters and the band director from Denison High School, which had the first mariachi program in Iowa – they all suggested starting a mariachi program.
“This year, we’re up to 58.4 percent of students in band are Hispanic and Latino so our band program, our marching band, our jazz band, looks a lot more like our student body now and that’s because mariachi has been an entering point into the band program for students that maybe didn't start band in fifth grade,” Smith said.
The amount of Latino students in the mariachi band is 70 percent, she added.
Smith is continuing to look for ways to fund the program through grants because instruction is needed on the violin and guitar, which are instructors the school district doesn’t have, she said. The students are generally beginners on those instruments. “Having someone that knows how to teach them is really important,” Smith said. “Also, I think it’s really important that we make sure we’re hiring instructors from diverse backgrounds.”
Los Cometas Mariachi wears black pants, white shirts and a Mono, the bowtie, which the school provides for the students, she said. Eventually Smith would like to be able to provide them with the same pants, shirts and boots.
“So that’s one last thing student’s have to fund out of their own pockets,” Smith said. “That would further help the equity of the program and make sure all students can participate.”
Board of Education member Becky Vargas asked Smith if the racial justice grant was renewable. Smith said they could apply for it every year but missed the application deadline this past year. She already has the application written for the next grant cycle.
Smith has also applied for a smaller grant through the Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs for a smaller grant of $1,000 and through local charities, she said.
Board of Education member Ed Moreno suggested Smith apply for a grant through the local 100 Plus Women group. Smith thanked him for the idea and said she would look into that.
Boardmember Jeff Laughlin asked Smith which school districts in the state had a mariachi program. Smith said Denison and Ottumwa. The Solon Community School District was in the process of starting a mariachi program.
“You’re trendsetting,” boardmember Becky Vargas said. “It’s a really good program.”
“Thank you,” Smith replied. “We have a lot of fun.”