Courtesy Photo / California State Fair

Mariachi Tesoro de San Fernando

Mariachi Tesoro has done it again.

For the second year in a row, by unanimous decision, they have won the title, the “Best of the Best in California.”

Of the nine competing teams from across the state, Los Angeles County’s Mariachi Tesoro de San Fernando took home and defended their title.

In addition to receiving $5,000 to use for their Mariachi Master Apprentice Program (MMAP), they won the honor of performing on stage with the legendary Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlán.

It was the grand finale following the competition against other top youth mariachi groups held at the State Fair in Sacramento.

Mariachi Tesoro opened the show for Mariachi Vargas to a sell-out crowd.

“We were all excited to win,” said MMAP teacher Sergio “Checo” Alonso. “I was very happy with how hard they worked. It was hard work and they were out in the hot sun at the state fair.”

Not only Tesoro, but Tesoritos performed two songs. Alonso noted that it was especially gratifying that the decision was unanimous by the group of judges who are all notable in the genre.

The young musicians from San Fernando spent countless hours in rehearsal, and had worked hard to shake off a disappointing disqualification at a recent competition in Albuquerque. Judges there said the students had gone over their allotted seven minutes performance time by three seconds and would not be considered.

They took that experience to motivate them to work harder, Alonso said, and looked forward to the competition in Sacramento.

“They were motivated after going to Albuquerque. They were well rehearsed and well prepared,” he said.

Univision partnered with the California State Fair to bring nine of the state’s best youth mariachi groups to compete and provided coverage of the students leading up to the competition.

Following their win, Mariachi Tesoro performed in-studio for the Spanish language network.

The members of Mariachi Tesoro have had a full summer of performances that even professional musicians would long for. They opened their summer by performing at the Ford Theater in Hollywood, recently performed under a canopy of trees in the rustic amphitheater for the nonprofit organization Tree People, and also at La Plaza Cultura de Arte in downtown Los Angeles for a gala tribute to Linda Ronstadt.

It can be said that Mariachi Tesoro and their MMAP program has always aimed high. As winners of the 2012 National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Award, they were invited to play in the Obama White House and at the Kennedy Center.

It’s also rare, however, that a music program can say its students are taught by Master teachers. The students in the MMAP program receive their training from members of Los Camperos, one of the most esteemed professional mariachi groups. Students are taught not only the skill of playing in the style of mariachi music, they learn the deep rooted tradition connected to the artform.

Alonso, a music teacher at San Fernando High School, is the harpist for Los Camperos. Beyond teaching students how to read music, he shares the story of his own mentor, the Camperos founder Nati Cano, whose life’s work changed the image of mariachi music by elevating it from the view that it was bar music to the art form he believed it rightfully deserved to perform on the finest stages worldwide, placing mariachi musicians standing center stage in front of a symphony orchestra.

Cano also gave a permanent home to his group of esteemed musicians when he opened the doors at La Fonda restaurant in Los Angeles.

Cano embraced the MMAP concept, collaborating in 2000 with the City of San Fernando Cultural Arts Supervisor Virginia Diediker.

Together, they developed the apprentice program that paired local students with his professional Grammy Award-winning musicians. It began at first with about a dozen students.

Now, under the program, the youngest of students can begin their musical education in elementary school with Los Tesoritos and continues throughout high school with Mariachi Tesoro that requires discipline, musicianship and performance etiquette.

“I share Nati Cano’s legacy with them to get them to understand why sometimes we can be a little demanding and what our vision is for MMAP,” said Alonso. 

The program has grown with support from the National Endowment for the Arts, the California Arts Council and the City of San Fernando. 

“We also couldn’t do it without the support of the community and the parents.”

Some parents who’ve learned about the success of MMAP come as far away as Orange County and Bakersfield to enroll their children in the program. “The parents coming out and supporting the program is a real testament to the value they place on our music and culture,” he said.

Alonso relates to parents in the program as his own daughter Aida (named after Aida Cuevas) is a member of MMAP and Mariachi Tesoros.

“She was playing the violin since she was 5, and she’s has grown up with MMAP as part of her extended family. As a parent, I know how important it is for other parents that their kids are being educated in music and the culture — I’m as proud of all of our students as I am of my own daughter.”

Each year, the MMAP program ebbs and flows as it gains new students and loses graduating students. “We’ve had a lot of students who’ve gone on to prestigious universities,” Alonso said.

“The state competition was the last MMAP competition for Diana Carron, one of our graduating seniors. She is going to UC Berkeley in the fall.”

Alonso describes the current generation of students to be just as strong as those who went through the program in previous years. Many former members stay in touch online and post congratulatory messages and offer encouragement. Many, after they’ve graduated, continue playing with groups organized on their college campuses and some have successfully joined other professional mariachi groups.

Those connected with MMAP describe it as a bridge that has encouraged education and built a family that stands tall as mariachi musicians.

“Right now, more than ever, it’s important,” Alonso said. “I believe what we are trying to instill is not just about music but it’s about traditional music and we are the ambassadors of this music on this side of of the border and for the community.”