Dan Buckley wants to Kickstart mariachi documentary
Filmmaker hopes to share stories of Tucson's musical history
It would be easy to mistake journalist and documentary filmmaker Daniel Buckley — with his white hair, plaid button down shirt and khaki cargo pants — for a snowbird. But an alumnus of the University of Arizona, Buckley has been a Tucson local long enough to see the city change.
After more than 30 years of reporting on local mariachi musicians, he’s seen the traditional music revive a culture that was nearly forgotten and lift a population that was in danger of losing its voice. With his next film he hopes to share the story of how the mariachi movement saved the Latino population of Tucson.
The film, which Buckley plans to finish by the end of 2014, has already been supported by many mariachi conventions across the nation. Buckley is currently working to get funding from the city, and has a Kickstarter deadline to raise $15,000 by June 21.
Saturday, with six days to run in the all-or-nothing fundraising drive, backers had pledged nearly 50 percent of the funding goal. The money raised via Kickstarter would be but the first installment in what Buckley envisions as a project that will cost $150,000 or more.
“Most people would be panicked to death to be at a third of their goal just days away, and I’m like, ‘This is Tucson. They’ll come through,’” said Buckley in a recent interview. “We’re a long ways off, but Tucson is a last-minute town.”
In 1964, Tucson was also late in realizing the value of the Latino culture, Buckley said. Old barrios where bulldozed, downtown Spanish businesses were demolished, and English was the only language a kid could speak in school without getting punished. Mexican American students dropped out of schools that didn’t engage them, but chastised them for their heritage.
“The Tucson City Council really worked very hard to eradicate any trace of Latino culture in Tucson,” said Buckley. “They did everything possible to keep everything as lily-white as humanly possible.”
Salvation came from a revival of traditional mariachi band music when the first youth group, Los Changuitos Feos, or Ugly Little Monkeys, was founded. Mariachi is popularly known as the music of Mexico, originally from the town of Jalisco. Today, the music is made up of violins, guitars, and trumpets, but started off as village music of homemade rattles and drums. The lively music and elaborately decorated costumes of the musicians have been symbols of celebration and Mexican pride.
“Mariachis are at weddings, quinceañeras, and funerals,” said Buckley. “They’re part of your life from the day you’re born to the day you die.”
For Los Changuitos Feos, mariachi music became the start of a new life. In the summer of 1964, a group of a dozen boys began to charge for performances, investing their earnings in college scholarships. They were usually the first of their families to receive a college education.
“The mariachi program became their ticket to higher education,” said Buckley. “They had to keep their marks up, or they got kicked out of the group. It kept them in school. It kept them occupied. It kept them from being in gangs.”
Buckley watched and documented how the mariachi programs that were inspired by Los Changuitos Feos began to educate and transform the Mexican American community. Kids were more engaged in school because it harmonized with their culture. They went on to college and they participated in society. Their view of themselves, and how the rest of society viewed the Mexican American population, had improved, he said.
"Mariachis and folklorico dancers have now joined the saguaro cactus as visual symbols of the community, and are ubiquitous at every major historic celebration in our city," Buckley wrote in a pitch to donors.
“It’s something that engages the kids culturally and connects them with their family,” said Buckley. “One of the things that mariachi teaches young kids is teamwork, discipline, and most importantly the ability to stand up in front of a group of people you don’t know and express yourself. They can express to you why they came here, why they took the risk, and it is a risk. That personal touch, that welcoming face, it makes all the difference. When you realize that you have so much in common all those ideas fall away.”
Alfonso Dancil, chairman of the Board of Directors of the Tucson International Mariachi Conference, agreed that school programs have had a large part in the revitalization of the Latino culture and community.
“It’s important for students to have a challenge, a reason to stay in school,” said Dancil. “If they don’t turn professional they still keep the culture and dance within their family. Anyone can enjoy it. It’s not just Hispanic culture, it’s mixed, it’s American.”
Mariachi and Folklorico dance programs across the nation have been an opportunity for students of all backgrounds to learn about Mexican American culture. For Latino students especially, it has helped connect them to their heritage and share it with others.
“In my life, Folklorico dance started off as something that helped me learn more about my culture,” University of Arizona student Bruno Loya said. “It gave me confidence and self-esteem to get up in front of people and perform. It gave me a good group of friends and family to network with. It gave me passion for something that I can see myself doing for the rest of my life.”
Buckley has been welcomed into the mariachi community; in April he was the first non-Mexican, non-musician to be inducted into the Mariachi Hall of Fame. He has made the story of the mariachis his personal responsibility to share.
Buckley's priority is to interview mariachi's musical pioneers, many of whom are elderly.
“We have a unique opportunity as documentary makers to make information available to historians and to people in the world,” said Buckley. “It will be a great film to work on if I can find the money to actually get it done. And if I can’t find the money, well, I’ll just keep working on it and working on it for as long as I can.”