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Working with schoolkids a labor of love for mariachi maestro

‘Mr. V’s’ pupils again will open big conference

Mariachi instructor Alfredo Valenzuela, 63, has fun with the children at Davis Elementary.

Mariachi instructor Alfredo Valenzuela, 63, has fun with the children at Davis Elementary.

Across the stage of the Tucson Convention Center arena, 67 students from first to fifth grade, decked out in the matching black trajes – suits – of Mexico’s gentleman cowboy file quietly in as announcer Mario Celis introduces them: “Mariachi Los Aguilitas de Davis Bilingual Elementary!”

To the side and in front, their grandfatherly leader, Alfredo Valenzuela, strums his guitar to signal the beginning of the first song.

With surprising skill for kids so tiny, the group’s violins, trumpets, vihuelas, guitars and guitarrón – the jumbo bass guitar of the mariachi – chime in as the first of many pupils heads to the microphone to deliver a confident solo.

The crowd at last year’s Tucson International Mariachi Conference participant showcase went absolutely nuts when the group played. It has been the first act on stage at the participant showcase since the conference started in 1982, and will kick things off again next month.

For nearly 40 years Mr. V, as Valenzuela is affectionately called by all, has taught music to the littlest kids, 30 of those years at Davis. Now he is known also as Dr. V, as last summer the University of Arizona awarded him an honorary doctorate for his work here with children.

Whatever you call him, Valenzuela is one of the quiet, humble heroes of the community.

“I think Mr. V. is one of the great heroes of the Mariachi Renaissance,” said singer Linda Ronstadt, whose “Canciones de Mi Padre” and “Mas Canciones” breathed new life into the mariachi movement in the 1980s. Ronstadt will be a special guest at the conference this year.

“He is certainly one of my personal heroes,” she said. “He taught children how to embrace their culture, play beautifully and accurately and, above all, not to showboat. His students are always immediately recognizable because they are good performers with a great sense of dignity and grace. They always show respect for their music and their audience. Also he has rooted them deeply in the tradition and still allowed them room to be of their own time.”

Valenzuela, 63, grew up on a ranch in the middle of nowhere near Aravaipa Canyon. The family’s closest neighbors were five miles away. When he was about half the age of his first-graders, he caught the musical bug.

“There was no lights, no city, nothing around,” Valenzuela recalls. “But there used to be gatherings over there at night. The cowboys would get together and they’d have a few drinks and they’d bring out their guitar and start playing Spanish music or country music. I fell in love with the music there.”

He wanted an instrument but his family was poor. The essentials came first.

“My dad would tell me, ‘You need to work. Get shoes, boots to work as a cowboy, instead of buying a guitar.’ ”

When he was 19, Valenzuela ordered a guitar from the Sears catalog, instructing his mother not to tell his dad. An aunt who played accordion and guitar helped him tune the instrument and little by little he taught himself to play.

Not long after that, he was drafted into the Army. After serving he knew he didn’t want to lead the hard life of a cowboy. A friend convinced him that education was a noble thing, and he loved working with kids so he headed in that direction. After being discharged from the Army in 1968, Valenzuela started work on his degree at Eastern Arizona College in Thatcher, finishing his bachelor’s and master’s degrees at the University of Arizona.

Valenzuela got his first job with the Tucson Unified School District, teaching third grade at Mission View Elementary, transferring to Hollinger Elementary roughly three years later. At both schools Valenzuela created a popular guitar program. When Davis Bilingual Elementary was started a few years later, a curriculum specialist recommended that he be hired as a music specialist. He continued the guitar program at Davis. After a few years he suggested that the school start a violin program as well. And with the inspiration of the Tucson mariachi conference, the program morphed into a full-blown mariachi program.

“It started snowballing from there,” he said. “The kids got very motivated and I got motivated.”

It isn’t just fluff and fun.

“It really adds a lot to the kids,” Valenzuela said. “It’s been proven that the kids do better with their academic scores. And their self-concept. They feel real good about themselves.”

Beyond school it connects them with their culture, and with their parents and grandparents. There’s a huge amount of family involvement in the program. And as they venture out from elementary schools, many of the kids form their own groups.

“After a while it’s like a part-time job,” he said. “They start earning money and this is invaluable because this keeps them away from thinking about easy money.”

Very few of Valenzuela’s students end up getting in trouble with the law. And most continue on the path of higher education, heading on to college themselves – many for the first time in their family’s history.

Clearly, working with the kids and seeing them grow is a labor of love for Valenzuela. And the love goes both ways. “Hi, Mr. V,” the kids shout as they set up their chairs on a long slab of concrete behind Davis to practice. They run up and hug him. Children get words of encouragement and a hug after they finish their solos.

There is discipline, too. When Mr. V calls for attention, the hubbub quiets. The kids focus on the music making and dig in.

Valenzuela’s performing group hovers around 70 members each year. But nearly all of the school’s 250 or so students participate in his music program, waiting their chance to become part of the performing group. That batch of top performers appears all over town at special functions and private gatherings. Parents are always at each of the shows to help with equipment and ferry the kids back and forth.

One parent is Olga Flores, who holds a special place in the Davis mariachi history. When she was a fifth-grader at Davis, back when the school offered guitar classes only, Mr. V took her under his wing and helped her become a mariachi with Tucson’s Los Changuitos Feos.

“Back in those days the other kids would laugh at me for singing mariachi, which they called ‘old people’s music.’ But Mr. V changed the course of my life. He taught me how to perform in public. He always let me know that he was proud of me.”

Flores’ daughter, Selah, 8, is a second-grader at Davis and is part of the school’s choir. She takes intermediate violin classes after school. Flores said that her daughter receives the same kind of support Valenzuela gave her when she was in elementary school.

“My daughter comes home and she excitedly says, ‘Mom, Mr. V wants me to sing this song.’ When you see him with the kids, the look in his eyes is pride.”

That Mr. V is there is a strong recruiting tool at Davis, so much so that when he took an early retirement buyout a few years back, parents insisted that the school retain Valenzuela on a part-time basis to keep the quality of the program high. He comes in four afternoons a week to work with the kids; his son Jaime teaching the morning sessions. His older son Rudy teaches at Roskruge Middle School; daughter Myrna Salinas is a fourth-grade teacher at Summit View in the Sunnyside Unified School District. The family tradition continues.

Valenzuela’s dedication to the program is unmistakable. Over Christmas vacation he was operated on for prostate cancer. He was back in the classroom when school started again.

“The doctors think they got it all,” he said with a huge smile. His boundless energy attests to his health and joy at working with these kids.

Last summer’s honorary doctorate was much deserved. At commencement, Valenzuela sat in the front row with UA President Robert Shelton, astronaut Frank Borman and the other three recipients.

“I couldn’t believe I was there,” he recalled. “It was so special.”

Valenzuela is so proud of what his kids accomplish.

“People who see these kids perform – especially when they see them the first time – they are totally awed,” Valenzuela said, beaming. “They perform at a very good level and being so young, it really impresses them. Sometimes they tell me, ‘These mariachi hats are bigger than the kids.’

“I’ve never regretted it,” he said of the hard work and long hours he puts in. “To me it’s something that has enriched my life so much.”

Mariachi student Jazlin Ladriere, 8, has fun playing her violin during Valenzuela's class at Davis.

Mariachi student Jazlin Ladriere, 8, has fun playing her violin during Valenzuela's class at Davis.

Mariachi student Cristian Lovell, 9, playing his guitar during class with Valenzuela at Davis Elementary.

Mariachi student Cristian Lovell, 9, playing his guitar during class with Valenzuela at Davis Elementary.

Students at Davis Elementary practice mariachi music with instructor Alfredo Valenzuela.

Students at Davis Elementary practice mariachi music with instructor Alfredo Valenzuela.



The Tucson International Mariachi Conference

What: The Participant Showcase

Where: TCC Arena

When: 7 p.m. April 23

Cost: $10, children 12 and under free*

The students who take part in the mariachi and baile folklórico workshops have the opportunity to strut their stuff at the Participant Showcase.

What: Espectacular Concert

Where: Tucson Convention Center Arena

When: 7:30 p.m. April 24

Cost: $48, $68 and $88*

Headliners include Linda Ronstadt, Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlán and Mariachi Los Camperos de Nati Cano.

* Tickets available through the Tucson Convention Center Box Office, 321-1000.

What: Mariachi Mass (free)

Where: St. Augustine Cathedral, downtown Tucson

When: 9 a.m. April 25

Featuring Los Camperos de Nati Cano

What: Fiesta de Garibaldi

Where: DeMeester Performance Center at Reid Park, 22nd & Country Club

When: 10 a.m. until 10 p.m. April 25

Cost: $5 for adults and kids (12 and under) are free!

For more information, go to www.tucsonmariachi.org.

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