Full circle back to Mr. Lemus.
When I began junior high in 2000 at South Gate Middle School, I had no idea how much my life would change during those three years pivotal to my future. I was only mildly interested in joining the mariachi there; my parents pushed me to join so I could play with my paternal grandfather (the only grandfather I have known) and be the only one of his descendants who played mariachi music. I agreed to join South Gate Middle School’s Mariachi Juvenil Amanecer (I didn’t know we had a name until the 8th grade) and everything since then has been a whirlwind. I joined at the beginning of the sixth grade and made a few friends in the mariachi.
At the beginning, I mostly spoke to people older than me because I felt I fit in with them; I soon became pals with Marcos (who, to this day, is insanely cool), Christine, and others. I felt I somehow fit in with them. I also met JJ, who I thought was in the seventh grade, but was actually in the sixth grade, like me, but he was just tall. I kept it cool with them, played my music, and went home.
The mariachi instructor was Mr. Frank Lemus, who was in charge of the whole music department: marching band (of which I was a member; electric bass guitar for concerts and bass drum for parades), orchestra, jazz band (electric guitar and electric bass guitar, seventh and eighth grade), and mariachi (guitar, sixth through eighth grade); he was the only teacher I have ever had for three straight years and taught us well. He taught me a lot of how mariachis perform, what they should do, how the music should be performed, not played, and other little things which improved all of us a lot, both musically and personally.
Through the middle school mariachi, we had a lot of chances to experience mariachi outside the school; we performed once at Cielito Lindo, the restaurant of Mariachi Sol de México; a number of times in front of the LAUSD Board of Directors; at the Hollywood Bowl in 2003 for the Mariachi USA Festival (we were part of the opening act and I nearly fell off the stage), and was part of the 2003 Tucson International Mariachi Conference.
After attending Tucson (as we mariachi refer to it), I became a founding member of Mariachi Juvenil Espuela de Plata, one of three mariachi groups that have come out of Mr. Lemus’s mariachi programs at schools; the others are Mariachi Alma del Sol, which was formed by members of Mariachi Juvenil Amanecer 2000 graduates, and Mariachi Alma de Los Angeles, which formed out of Mr. Lemus’ mariachi program at some middle or high school he once taught in the El Sereno area of Los Angeles in the mid-1990s. There may be more mariachi groups, who knows. It’d be interesting to learn of more.
We graduated, left South Gate Middle School for South Gate High School in 2003, and by the end of the 2003-2004 school year, Mr. Lemus had been transferred to Huntington Park High School, where he started another mariachi, which did not flourish because high school students are too dogged and rebellious to sit down and practice at the level that Mr. Lemus always demanded of middle school students. South Gate High School was able to restart its mariachi group in 2004, but that venture ended in 2005 when the mariachi instructor decided to change to a school nearer to his home in Riverside, but Mariachi Espuela de Plata remained strong, maybe stronger.
Yesterday was the first time I saw Mr. Lemus in about three years; I had mariachi practice at Huntington Park High School with him and others who graduated from South Gate Middle School in 2003 because he wants to get all of us together for one final performance before we graduate high school and move on with our lives (college, work, etc.). We will perform tomorrow at the Radisson Hotel near USC (a member of tomorrow’s mariachi, Gaby Martinez, will live in next year while she attends USC) for a function put on by LAUSD District 6 to honor parents; the mainstay of most District 6 parent functions has been a mariachi group from the city of South Gate. We will all get together at Huntington Park High School in the morning tomorrow and leave to perform. We will be back in HP High by the time school ends, yet I have the feeling I (and everyone else) will stay after school and practice for hours, most likely.
It will be bittersweet, to say the least. This will probably be the last time I perform with most of the people in the mariachi, for most of the people at the function, and the last time I see Mr. Lemus, the man who heavily influenced me and allowed me to find something at once so personal and yet so public: mariachi music.