Last week, I received a message notifying me that one of the persons directly responsible for playing a role in the thriving mariachi culture in the northeast San Fernando Valley is finally retiring. Thursday, May 24, was his students’ last performance for the year, and, we learned, his final concert as a teacher.
After nearly 30 years of teaching, Rodolfo Vasquez — Mr. Vasquez, as we all know him — is stepping down as San Fernando Middle School’s musical director.
The message had a request: can any of his former students show up and play a few songs to bid him farewell? It was a last-minute arrangement organized through social media, but still nearly 50 musicians showed up to thank him for the impact he had on their lives.
We gathered outside the middle school’s auditorium. Many of the musicians who showed up still perform mariachi, either as a full-time career or just on the weekends. Some no longer play, like Hilda Muñoz who hadn’t picked up a violin since she was in his class in 1990, but still showed up to play their tribute.
“I think that Mr. Vasquez, by introducing me to mariachi, just changed my life in a lot of ways. For one, I think it was the first time I was surrounded by people who were proud to be Mexican, and it made me proud to be Mexican. It’s where I first learned the term ‘Chicano.’ It’s where I met other Mexicans who were educated and went to college, and suddenly that opened up the idea for me to go to college. And I also made a lot of real good friends,” said Muñoz. She was one of Vasquez’s first students who joined the after-school mariachi class, the first of its kind in the San Fernando Valley.
Ernie Rodriguez, and his twin brother Robert, were also first members of the class. They came from a musical family and would hang around their father’s band, which would play cumbia, rancheras, corridos, and even oldies and rock and roll.
“I really used to love to hear my dad sing in Spanish but I never actually understood what he was singing. So when Vasquez came along I decided to give it a try. Without knowing it, at the time I guess, I was trying to connect with my roots,” Ernie said. That’s why he did not mind staying after school for a class for which they received no school credit.
“He’s still a mentor and a friend, now a peer. I’ve always thought of him as a second father in some ways, and just meeting new people, seeing different places, experiencing the music, it was a big part of my life for many years. It always will be a part of my life, even though I’m not [really] playing anymore,” Robert said.
Robert only plays for special occasions, while Ernie continues to play every weekend. Many years after they were his students, they played in the same professional group alongside Vasquez: Mariachi Aztlan de San Fernando, the same group three of Vasquez’s four children now also play in.
Vasquez’s musical career started in high school, playing trumpet in bands covering Top 40 songs. But it wasn’t until he was attending college at California State University Northridge that he started playing mariachi with the group Mariachi Aztlan.
He graduated with a Music Education degree and taught at Dorsey High School, Kennedy High School, and Holmes Middle School before teaching at San Fernando Middle School in 1989. The following year he started the mariachi program, naming the group Mariachi Los Halcones, after the school mascot, Falcons.
Since then, many of the students who took his class continued playing in high school, and even after graduating college and establishing careers.
“I have the firsthand views of the type of potential talent that Mr. Rudy Vasquez produces here,” said Sergio Alonzo, musical director at San Fernando High School and instructor for the Mariachi Master Apprentice Program, a city program that Vasquez has greatly supported.
“Not only musical talent, but fine young students, fine human beings who have had the privilege of working day in and day out. And San Fernando High School has a long standing tradition of musical success in the community, and that’s largely due to the efforts of Mr. Rudy Vasquez.”
Personally, my earliest interaction with Mr. Vasquez was at the end of second grade the summer of 1995. My brother had been in his beginner’s band class, and upon learning that my father had the endeavor of creating a family mariachi group, he invited us to attend his class during summer school, despite us not being enrolled students.
When I was in high school, I was a freak with green spiky hair who was accepted into the Mariachi Master Apprentice Program. But he still made me feel welcome at rehearsals, which were held in his classroom, and encouraged my participation. That is Mr. Vasquez — he has no barriers to encouragement and goes the extra mile to provide support, always extremely gracious, patient, and kind, and made you feel like you belonged. His efforts and teaching style undoubtedly had a huge influence and inspired my decision to continue playing to this day.
Many parents, like my own, also recognize his work in the community. My father, also a musician, showed up to the surprise performance because he said Vasquez helped many kids not fall into gangs or drugs by teaching us culture. He, too, has a great esteem for Mr. Vasquez.
That is why we showed up and played when we learned that Thursday was going to be his final concert as a teacher. Many of us went out of our way to pay our respects and send him off to retirement with a proper farewell and thank you.
We played “La Feria de Las Flores” because it was the first song he taught us students. We hope it was a reminder that his work was well-appreciated and very fruitful, providing the residents of the valley, Los Angeles, and the world with the tradition of la música más bella del mundo.
Thank you, Mr. Vasquez and enjoy your time at the beach!