Decade-long documentary project to tell 'miraculous' tales of Tucson's youth mariachis & folklorico dancers
Filmmaker Buckley set to screen rough cut of 'The Mariachi Miracle'
Tucson's vibrant mariachi and folklorico communities shine in the documentary film "The Mariachi Miracle." While it isn't finished yet, there will be a screening of a rough cut followed by a discussion on Sunday, August 14.
The documentary is directed and produced by Daniel Buckley, a music writer and multimedia producer for Native Peoples, the Tucson Weekly, Stereophile Magazine, and the Tucson Citizen for more than 30 years. He is also the founder of the Cine Plaza at the Fox documentary series.
More than a decade ago, Buckley — inspired by the vibrancy of Southern Arizona's mariachi culture — began his project telling the stories of young mariachi performers and folklorico dancers in Tucson. While Buckley told the Sentinel in 2013 that he intended to have the film finished by the next year, the project has grown as he's worked on it.
The project grew, in scope and time, for several reasons, he said. Funding was "first and foremost."
"It was a constant financial drain on me and sometimes, I had to stop to take gigs to keep a roof over my head," he said. "Grant support was very sporadic and small in those days. Also, different aspects of the story that I previously had no clue about revealed themselves along the way and had to be included."
Buckley said he was also trying to track the performances by the students, which took time as well. Then the COVID-19 pandemic tossed an unexpected wrench in the gears.
This documentary isn't the first one under Buckley's belt. The Arizona International Film Festival screened his previous effort, "Tucson's Heart and Soul: El Casino Ballroom." He also directed and produced four works for the Arizona Historical Society, such as "Yuma: Gateway to the Southwest."
The roots of "The Mariachi Miracle" were first planted in 1971 when Buckley moved to Tucson from Catskill, N.Y. to attend the University of Arizona.
"One of the things that struck me was how few Mexican-Americans there were in classes with me," Buckley said. "Very few. And in my neighborhood, there was the proportion that was in the town, but in the campus, the only Mexican-Americans I saw were working janitorial staff or watering the lawns."
Although the roots of mariachi are in the folk music of Jalisco, Mexico, its development in the United States can be traced to Tucson, where it was first introduced into public school curriculum. 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.
Buckley's documentary chronicles the journey from the first mariachi youth program, Los Changuitos Feos, in 1964 to present-day programs in cities such as Los Angeles, San Francisco and Chicago led by graduates of Tucson's programs. It also traces the transformation of Tucson from a segregated desert town whose leaders were bent on using urban renewal projects to raze large parts of its Mexican heritage into a city that embraces its multicultural heritage, Buckley told the Sentinel in 2015. But at its heart, and perhaps most importantly, the film illustrates the life-changing role arts education can play for students.
A friend of Buckley's knew a man named Randy Carillo, who was a founding member in Mariachi Cobre. Carrillo had been part of one of the first few youth mariachi groups in Tucson — Los Changuitos Feos, which translates to The Ugly Little Monkeys.
Early on group established that they were going to get paid for performances and "send every kid to college." Ever since, Los Changuitos Feos have been giving out scholarships to their group members to further their education.
As these programs grew, so did school attendance rates. Dropout rates fell, graduation rates rose and college matriculation among Latinos grew, Buckley said.
"The mariachi program became their ticket to higher education," said Buckley. "They had to keep their grades up or they got kicked out of the group. It was the reason they came to school."
"Ironically, Randy, who I really didn't know, was in the university on a Changos scholarship," Buckley said. "Changos became the Johnny Appleseed of the whole mariachi movement in the United States."
The Changos would go on trips to different places — New York, Mexico City, and others. That way, they would "spread the gospel" of mariachi as a way to help young people get a higher education.
"That was really the seed of the 'The Mariachi Miracle,'" Buckley said. "Probably 20 years ago, I was walking on campus and it happened to be graduation time and the students were coming out of Centennial Hall and it was just the Hispanic graduates, and there were so many of them. It was just unreal. When I started looking at them as they came out, probably a third or half of them I knew as mariachis or folklorico dancers. A lightbulb went off."
The documentary — plus the companion book with the same title Buckley will be working on — won't only cover young mariachis and folklorico performers in Tucson, or the influence Los Changuitos Feos had over their contemporaries. It will also cover the introduction of women, in the 1980s, to the traditionally male art form and the effect that had on mariachi culture.
It will show historic moments from the creation of the Tucson International Mariachi Conference to Linda Ronstadt's influence in popular culture.
Aside from independent local groups and companies, schools from elementary to secondary began forming their own mariachi and folklorico programs, enabling students to get credits for their lessons and involvement in those art forms. But physical education or arts course credit isn't the only perk.
Patsy Klein, who is now director of pastoral care at the Our Mother of Sorrows parish, was a folklorico dancer who cultivated her interest in dance since a young age. She took folklorico lessons herself and mentored other folklorico groups.
Among many things, she coordinated the University of Arizona's Hispanic Heritage Halftime Show. She still continues to support folklorico dance groups in the area. During her time working with young folklorico dancers, she said she could see how participating affected their lives.
"I've seen the most introverted and shyest students get on a stage in front of a large crowd with their group," Klein said. "I've seen them really come out of their shells."
She recalled how folklorico changed her own life as well. Klein was able to travel with her dance group around the country and internationally. She remembers how Notre Dame in Paris, France, looked before the fire, and she is fond of the memory of when her group was invited to wear their trajes and lead prayers in a procession for the Lady of Fatima.
"Pure joy," Klein said. "Every experience I had with folklorico just brought me pure joy."
Buckley could see how children were growing in those artistic environments and would visit schools to watch performances or observe classes. He said that around seven years ago, he was setting up to film poetry sessions at Davis Bilingual Elementary School when a young girl - around eight or nine years old - came up to him and said: "Hello, my name is Marisol, but you can call me Mari. If there's anything you need at all, don't hesitate to ask."
"I told her, yes, I did have a question," Buckley said. "And I said, 'How long have you been a mariachi?' And she said, 'Since kindergarten. Why do you ask?' Who else at nine years old would walk up to someone with filming gear and tell them they're happy to assist in any way... mariachi kids do. They're fearless."
Alfredo Valenzuela — affectionately known as Dr. V due to his honorary UA doctorate — was responsible for educating young mariachis at Davis Bilingual Elementary School. He began the mariachi program there in 1981.Valenzuela is now retired but he has been succeeded by his son, Jaime Valenzuela. He was also a witness of the role of mariachi in the children's lives.
"I haven't seen many students who stayed in mariachi who later went into negative things in life," Valenzuela said. "And to me, that was so touching. And I think Dan observed this."
Valenzuela said this also impacted his life, seeing his daughter and his sons dedicate time to mariachi music. Now, the three of them are teachers.
"This was so great for me to see them value of getting involved in mariachi music and doing something so positive," he said.
For Valenzuela, mariachi and the work he was able to accomplish during his career fills him with "a lot of love, a lot of caring."
Buckley — who was inducted into the Mariachi Hall of Fame in 2013; the first non-Mexican, non-musician to be so honored — was inspired to begin interviewing many of the aging musicians and dancers who had kicked of the rebirth of the movement after years of covering mariachi and folklorico while he was a journalist for the Tucson Citizen.
"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," he told the Sentinel in 2013. Nearly a decade later, he's ready to give the world an extended sneak peek at his labor of love.
Buckley said the screening on Sunday, August 14, will be an opportunity for the public to give feedback on the film. The doors will open at 11:30 a.m., the event starts at noon at the Fox Tucson Theatre, 17 West Congress St.
TucsonSentinel.com’s Molly Baker and Maria Coxon-Smith contributed archival material to this report.
Bianca Morales is TucsonSentinel.com’s Cultural Expression and Community Values reporter, and a Report for America corps member supported by readers like you.