Conservatory of Music at the forefront of mariachi movement

Luis “Tito” Talamantes ’24 is an accomplished musician and a trailblazer in mariachi music, having performed at the White House, the Kennedy Center and recorded with some of the biggest names in mariachi around the world.

The Stockton native recalls listening to mariachi music with his family while growing up. And when his mother was in and out of the hospital with health complications, he found refuge in practicing his trumpet.

After several years working as a professional musician, teaching music was something he felt called to do, particularly at the collegiate level. That opportunity came in 2019 when Talamantes partnered with conservatory faculty and the dean to launch Mariachi Ocelotlan­—the conservatory’s first mariachi ensemble.

“Mariachi reaches kids that you wouldn't typically reach,” said Talamantes, who is in the master’s program in music education at Pacific. “It has the power of transcending and taking listeners on an emotional rollercoaster.

“Maybe it's joy. Maybe it's melancholy. Maybe it's the closest thing they have to their home, and they can't go back home,” he said, adding that it’s not uncommon for students to share their family’s immigrant stories during class.

Mariachi originated in Jalisco during the mid-1800s as a result of blending indigenous and European musical influences and has since become an unmistakable symbol of Mexican culture. A typical group consists of two trumpets, up to six violins, a Spanish guitar, a vihuela and a guitarron.

Talamantes believes adding mariachi to school music curricula gives the traditional Mexican folk music equal standing alongside the western classical genres commonly taught in American music schools.

It’s a movement that is taking hold nationwide, especially in regions with large Hispanic populations. In 2011, mariachi was recognized as an Intangible Cultural Heritage by UNESCO, and mariachi programs are increasingly being offered in public schools and colleges across the country. Stockton Unified School District, where Talamantes also works as a music teacher, plans to launch six more programs in the next two years. 

Mariachi Ocelotlán performing

Mariachi Ocelotlán students perform during the Pacific Prism concert at Homecoming and Family Weekend on October 15, 2022.

The Hispanic student population is steadily growing at Pacific. The university recently announced that it achieved Hispanic-Serving Institution status. The U.S. Department of Education designation, which requires at least 25% of students identify as Hispanic or Latino, enables universities to apply for funding to expand educational resources and opportunities for students.

The addition of programs such as Mariachi Ocelotlan underscores the university’s commitment to cultivate an inclusive environment that nurtures success and cultural expression.

“Tito and our students in Mariachi Ocelotlan are helping make the study of music in America’s schools more inclusive,” said Peter Witte, dean of Pacific’s Conservatory of Music. “For too long American school music marginalized entire cultures, repertoires and skills to celebrate those of a very specific few. As Pacific celebrates all the cultures that make the Central Valley, California and America so musically vibrant, Tito helps show us a path forward.”

The ensemble’s impact extends beyond the university. In March of 2023, during Pacific’s spring break, San Francisco Unified School District invited Mariachi Ocelotlan to offer a week-long mariachi clinic. Talamantes and 10 Pacific students worked with music teachers and their classes on pedagogy and technique, culminating in the 9th Annual ¡Viva el Mariachi! Concert at Mission High School.

“Getting exposure to other mariachi programs in California helped put things into perspective for us as students and educators in terms of how we want to expand and improve mariachi education going forward,” said Ellie Aquino, a violin performance major and recent conservatory graduate.

“It's extremely important that students see themselves, their families and their cultures reflected in their education.”

That’s exactly what Talamantes is trying to accomplish. Last May he launched the Stockton Scholastic Mariachi Festival, the first event of its kind in the city. The festival featured performances by 10 mariachi ensembles, including Mariachi Ocelotlan, and drew a crowd of nearly 1,000 spectators. 

The goal is to grow the festival into an annual conference, using proceeds to bring professional groups from Los Angeles and Mexico, and give students the opportunity to work with world-class musicians. The second annual festival took place Sunday, May 19, at Cesar Chavez High School.

For Talamantes, it all comes back to opening doors for more students through music.

“At the end of the day, my job as a music educator is to advocate for the art and be an agent for social change,” he said. “Mariachi creates a special connection that attracts students who might otherwise not be interested in music…When I see my students out there performing, I know they’ve found their identity and they feel empowered.”