MMAP Instructor Sergio Alonso and student Ernesto Lazaro with First Lady Michelle Obama in 2012.

A milestone anniversary deserves a celebration, particularly the kind of celebration that artists are capable of producing. And the Mariachi Master Apprentice Program (MMAP) — where musicians from the Grammy-winning group Los Camperos teach the art of mariachi music to students ranging in ages from 7-19 — is poised to celebrate its 20th anniversary this month.

Unfortunately the artistic community, like many of us, has had planned events shelved or at least dramatically altered due to the coronavirus outbreak. MMAP, which has about 60 students in three different levels — beginning, intermediate and advanced — was hoping it would at some point present live performances. When it became obvious that option was not available, MMAP looked for other ways to celebrate.

The students and instructors have been working intently on a video of music they’ve recorded, and plan to release it shortly.

“The premise of this project is in response to the current pandemic,” said Sergio “Checo” Alonso, a music teacher at San Fernando High School and a renown harpist with Los Camperos.

“We, along with countless other arts programs throughout the country, were scrambling to redesign their models to keep the music, the arts, the programs going.”

The video will showcase the students in this year’s program, although the advanced group will be the most prominently featured. After having learned and rehearsed 10 songs in June, the students spent July and August recording the songs in their homes, then going out to various locations in the city — including the Las Palmas mural, the San Fernando Mission, The Lopez Adobe, the Cesar E. Chavez Memorial, and the San Fernando gateways — to use as backdrops when recording the songs there.

Alumni like Dr. Liliana Castrellón, a former violinist in the MMAP program, who is now an assistant professor at Duquesne University, and Karla Torres-Vasquez, who also played violin in the program and currently teaches music at San Fernando Middle School, are contributing testimonials in the video and introduce the songs. There is also a tribute to Los Camperos founder Natividad “Nati” Cano, who passed away in 2004.

Alonso said that grant money from the National Endowment of the Arts (NEA) is being used for the project.

“I thought maybe we could do something, with the idea of celebrating culture and community,” Alonso said. “We re-imagined what we could do since we could not fulfill [other requirements to use the funding from] our grant proposal because everything was being canceled.

“Every student essentially operates as their own producer, videographer, and editor,” Alonso said. “They do the recording, they check it, send it to me and I review it to make sure everything is all right.”

The video is currently in post production.

“We hope to have it finished and out sometime this month,” Alonso said, adding it could be viewed on MMAP’s Facebook page and other outlets.

In The Beginning

Virginia Diediker, the San Fernando Cultural Arts Supervisor, came up with the concept for MMAP, of having professional musicians teach mariachi music to school-age children. She presented the idea to Cano. They agreed that having master musicians teach mariachi music at local schools could help keep the traditions and the art form alive.

Diediker received funding from the city and wrote other grant proposals to secure additional funding. MMAP was established in October of 2000, and started teaching classes to a dozen students in January of 2001.

Diediker continues to write grant proposals year after year to help keep MMAP going, Alonso said. The hard work has created a network of sources that have included the NEA — “Our primary funders over the past 20 years,” Alonso said — the California Arts Council, the Alliance for California Traditional Arts, and, of course, the City of San Fernando. 

There’s “no way MMAP would be here” without Diediker, Alonso said. 

Diediker said that she initially wasn’t sure how long the program would last. And the fact that it’s now 20 years and counting?

“Amazing,” she said. “I wasn’t sure the kids would take to [the music] the way they have. I was nervous that they wouldn’t show the teachers respect. But I think that…the students look up to them as professional musicians, making their living doing this. The students have an admiration for them.”

MMAP has become one of the most decorated programs of its kind in the country, earning state championships and national recognition. In 2012, MMAP was one of 12 recipients of the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Awards, which earned students a visit to the White house and the opportunity to perform for President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama. They have also performed at the Kennedy Center.

And it is still going strong.

“The next thing I know, in the blink of an eye, it’s 20 years later,” Alonso said. “Never in my wildest dreams did I think it would last this long.”

Visiting The White House

Twenty years can create many memorable moments. But at the top of the list, Alonso said, was the trip to Washington, DC.

The best part, Alonso said, was being able to make the experience more than just meeting with the President.

“We took the opportunity of creating a whole tour of the East Coast,” he said. “We planned it six months in advance. I got in touch with colleagues at the Smithsonian Institute and the Council for the Traditional Arts, and they put me in touch with school districts, the Kennedy Center, and other organizations. We said, ‘we’ll be in town and the kids can use the opportunity to learn about your community.’”

He said the MMAP students not only visited schools in Maryland, they also performed for them.

“It was a wonderful time,” Alonso said. “A lot of those kids had never been out of their local community. Some had never even been on a plane, much less worn a business suit on a plane. It was a real satisfying feeling to know the program allowed this generation of students to experience something like that.

“Even today we still talk about it.”

Embrace the Process

When asked about the legacy of the program, Diediker replied, “That [the students] were taught exceptional values. And they were taught how to have self-discipline. And that there are no limits. They can be as good as they want to be.”  

Alonso agrees. Even if the students go into professions other than music, he feels the time spent in the MMAP program will play a pivotal role in their growth. 

“I always try to instill in the kids that it’s about the process, not the product. The experience; the process, the rehearsals — the  doing  of music as opposed to the final song you play or getting any kind of recognition,” Alonso said. “I encourage them to be very conscious of that process, of that road to get there. Because once they learn and appreciate that, they’ll know how to maneuver themselves in life as they develop all the skill sets they need to develop.

“I’ve seen so many of the kids go on to college and become professional musicians and have great careers. I’ve seen them do other things. I keep track of them carefully. And more than once, I have had a kid come up and say to me, ‘the one thing I remember you saying is, it’s about the journey, not the destination.’ Because you may never get to the destination. But you are always, in some shape or form, on a journey. So enjoy it and learn from it. And if you fall down, you gotta get back up and keep going,” he said.