This high school mariachi band united a rural Iowa meatpacking town. Can its success be replicated?

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Jamie Abarca, right, and Amy Estrada, left, get ready to lead the Mariachi Reyes del Oeste, Denison High School's top mariachi ensemble, onto the stage to perform during the 2022 Fiesta Mariachi.
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By Courtney Crowder, Des Moines Register

DENISON, Iowa — The standing-room-only crowd’s loud grito cheers — Aaaaayyyyyeeee! Aaaaayyyyyeeee! — echo across the high school gym, their elongated vowels bouncing off a rainbow’s worth of bright tablecloths, streamers and Mexican-style papel picados bunting.

Little siblings crawl among long communal tables, where families dine on heaping piles of carnitas, red beans and rice; warm tortillas at the ready to sop up any wayward remnants.

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White granddads wearing Cyclone sweatshirts and seed caps exchange greetings with young Hispanic fathers adorned in embroidered button-downs and pointy cowboy boots. Grandmas — Mexican abuelas and century-farm meemaws — steady their hands, phones raised, ready to record. A line worker at the local Smithfield meatpacking plant, who arrived early to snag the seat closest to the corner stage, attempts to covertly wipe away a tear, moved by music he never thought he’d hear in an American school. 

The gathered represent at least a dozen countries in a district where 23 languages reverberate throughout hallways and classrooms daily. They’re a cross-section of life in Denison, both those whose faces are fresh and those whose roots run deep. It’s a cross-section not seen in any other parts of this county, or in much of rural Iowa.

Tonight, these hallowed boards normally reserved for basketball and pep rallies are playing host to the school’s Fiesta Mariachi, a celebration of Iowa’s most robust high school mariachi program — and of how immigration and a trumpet’s fanfare transformed this rural hamlet.

Small towns in Iowa have been emptying out for more than a century, but Denison’s population has increased since the 1980s, including an explosive 25% growth in minority community members in the past decade. Jobs and industry are the main motivators for relocation, and with two large meatpacking plants in town and all the trappings of being a county seat, good-paying employment is not hard to find.

But to keep people, to encourage them to buy homes here and raise children here and retire here and tell extended family to come here, residents must feel ingrained in a place, experts say. And finding ways to welcome these new, diverse populations, to create community with them, could stem the bleeding in parts of rural America, they say.

Mariachi “has given that community as a whole, the Latino community, the green light that we embrace what you’re bringing to the table here,” says Claudia Rihner, Denison’s strings teacher. “We love that you’re bringing this cultural diversity, and we want to be involved in that.”

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Denison High School senior Esteban Castellanos plays his violin as the Mariachi Reyes del Oeste, the high school’s top mariachi ensemble, performs during the 2022 Fiesta Mariachi at the Denison High School gymnasium in Denison, Iowa, on Saturday, April 9, 2022.
Photo by Bryon Houlgrave / The Register

“It’s making somewhere that probably doesn’t feel like home to them, feel like home.”

Ten years strong, Denison’s mariachi, which includes nearly 70 kids in four different ensembles, has created an ecosystem of acceptance inside the high school and out. Their strings and serenades form a musical net that connects white students to their Latino peers, Hispanic kids to their heritage, diverse parents to the equally diverse school, and the district to a community primed to grow.

Encouraged by Denison’s success, high schools in Ottumwa, Sioux City, Storm Lake and West Liberty have started mariachi programs, joining a national trend that has seen this regional Mexican music incorporated into curricula as far away as Juneau, Alaska, where migrants work on crab boats.

In Storm Lake, enrollment in mariachi class has jumped from six to 38 in the span of a year. And in Marshalltown, the district posted an opening for a full-time mariachi educator in hopes of starting a program soon.

As the opening strains of a new tune swell in the gym, junior Amy Estrada steps forward to grab the microphone. Her brand new purple traje, a traditional mariachi outfit sewn in Denison High colors, twinkles under the scoreboard; the lapel’s embroidered monarch lions, the school’s mascot, positively glowing.

She’s listening for her whistle, her dad’s high-pitched squeak. The unmistakable sound of joy.

She asked band teacher Ruben Newell at the beginning of the year if the school’s top mariachi group, Mariachi Reyes del Oeste, could play “Estos Celos” (“This Jealousy”), her dad’s favorite. Born on a ranchito outside Mexico City, he blasts the song while tinkering in the garage, coaxing the entire family to sing along. 

Denison High School junior Amy Estrada sings as the Mariachi Reyes del Oeste, the high school’s top mariachi ensemble, performs during the 2022 Fiesta Mariachi at the Denison High School gymnasium in Denison, Iowa, on Saturday, April 9, 2022.
Photo by Bryon Houlgrave / The Register

In Estrada’s world, the dulcet melodies of mariachi can instantly turn a bad day good.

Like so many students, playing this music, and at school no less, has given Estrada a confidence she couldn’t have named before picking up a guitarrón or a vihuela, string instruments unique to mariachi. It’s a confidence in herself, and in her hometown.

“We show diversity in our community, and I love that because a lot of schools are very closed,” Estrada says. “Us coming in there and performing, we represent Denison, and I love representing Denison.”

Off stage, she may be Clark Kent. But one quick change into that traje later, and she’s Superman.

A mariachi band grows in Denison

Ruben Newell was sold on starting a mariachi program in Denison after an hour of strumming.

Newell, who’s had an ear for instruments as long as he can remember, had been band director at Denison High School for a few years before he picked up that guitar at a music educators conference. He was originally attracted to Denison by its strong tradition of fine arts and music — and, honestly, it didn’t hurt that the town was halfway between his family and his wife’s.

His former school district had been 95% white, but Denison’s was more than 60% Hispanic. Not only was the school a hundred miles and a world away from Newell’s upbringing on a farm outside Fort Dodge, colleagues and acquaintances cautioned him before he took the position: When you go teach at a school like that, those students don’t stay in music, they said. Those students don’t get involved.

Denison High School music director Ruben Newell guides seniors Antonio Rodriguez, left, and Adrain Velazquez-Nieto, both members of the Mariachi Reyes del Oeste, the high school’s top mariachi ensemble, during practice at the high school music room on Tuesday, May 10, 2022.
Photo by Bryon Houlgrave / The Register

Those students. They were never more specific, but they didn’t need to be for Newell to understand they meant the Latino kids.  

Not more than a week on the job, Newell knew that was a false stereotype. Yet when he stepped in front of his band, he didn’t see the school’s demographics reflected back to him. The words of his former colleagues clung to the recesses of his mind, a lingering fear: Those students don’t stay in music.

He understood a large portion of this school’s population wasn’t being reached, but he didn’t know how, exactly, to extend an invitation.

He found his invitation in that guitar.

“If you get out a yearbook, and open up the band section from 1982, and you’re offering the same ensemble that they did in 1982, you are ignoring that there has been a change in people, in communities and in education,” he says.

“If we’re not reaching the students, if we don’t have the students in here to teach them, what are we doing?”

If he could get an ensemble off the ground, Denison’s mariachi program would be the first of its kind in Iowa.

Now he had to convince the school administration.

Like jazz — just in Spanish

The group of a dozen or so students was just going to play a few songs at the end-of-the-year concert in the spring of 2012, a little interstitial between the band’s regular programming. But this set list was as much a test for the audience as it was for the kids or for Newell’s instruction.

When he pitched his superintendent the year before, Newell said mariachi music is as accessible — learn three chords and you can play a few songs — as it is intricate and difficult.

Traditionally passed down between generations by hands-on teaching, not reading staffs on paper, mariachi songs trace the seasons of life. Meditating on tragedies and triumphs, the lyrics cut and comfort in equal measure. And, unlike concert band, so much of this music is in the performance, in how musicians draw on their own lives to portray love, loss, joy, sadness, yearning or victory.

The words may be in Spanish, but the feeling transcends language.

Denison High School seniors Brian Ibarra, left, and Jamie Abarca, right, both members of the Mariachi Reyes del Oeste, the high school’s top mariachi ensemble, play their instruments during practice.
Photo by Bryon Houlgrave / The Register

A mariachi program would not only invite new musicians into the band’s fold, Newell said, but push the current students musically and show minority families that school is a safe space for their children and their culture. This would not be the out of tune, beaten up trumpets wandering between booths at a Mexican restaurant, Newell said.

“It’s a legitimate art form,” he says. “On par with what jazz is to American musicians.”

Newell barely finished his spiel before Superintendent Mike Pardun agreed. He tells his staff often that learning, whether music or chemistry or English lit, is possible only through strong relationships with the families in their district.

Pardun walked out of his office and booked Newell a ticket to an upcoming mariachi training. A few weeks later, six violins and six guitars, instruments necessary for mariachi, were delivered to the school.                

And in the fall, a small ensemble of eighth-graders, a mix of white and Latino kids, started with 20-minute lessons weekly. Newell picked the band’s journeymen, not the best or the worst, but the kids who cared deeply about music, the ones who felt the notes and the movements.

Their first performance was set for the spring concert.

As the ensemble stepped to the front and strummed, Newell paced back and forth, tracing the back wall of the middle school auditorium.

“Worst-case scenario was we put this group of students out there and they get in front of a crowd and they play what we taught them was mariachi and people go, ‘Wait, what is this?’” he says. “’What are these’ — if I’m being honest — ‘these white guys doing trying to teach our kids mariachi?’”

In a rapidly diversifying town, you see, race is never far from most people’s minds.

But as the last note echoed, the audience erupted, literally jumping to their feet — the first of many times that the loudest applause would be for mariachi.

As Newell started to take full breaths again, he caught a father crying into his hands, overcome by what he’d just seen.

“The thing we weren’t prepared for was the adults in the Latino community who couldn’t believe it,” Newell says. “It was grown men sobbing because they just couldn’t believe it. They were just in shock that this was happening in Denison, Iowa.”

Changing views of ‘A Wonderful Life’

The sun lingered over the courthouse, delivering the first hot afternoon of the year, as Denison’s town square buzzed. Shoppers flitted between Mexican pastelerías, bakeries, and tiendas, stores, nestled near American grills and stalwart storefronts — the old jeweler, the local pharmacy, the trusty dive bar. La Estrella Grocery, Lovan’s Asian Market and a large Hy-Vee sit within blocks of each other, shelves stocked with foods both local and imported. 

And up on the hill, the Denison water tower, blooming from a field just out of reach of the high school football stadium, declares: It’s a Wonderful Life.

The town of Denison in western Iowa made history when its high school became the first in the state to begin a competitive mariachi band in its music program.
Photo by Bryon Houlgrave / The Register

A reference to the eponymous Christmas movie starring Denison’s most famous daughter, actress Donna Reed, the tagline has become a rallying cry in this town of 8,300. But what, precisely, makes a wonderful life in Denison changed greatly with the expansion of the meatpacking industry in the 1990s.

Founded as a German Catholic enclave, Denison always had a high degree of social capital, the sociological term for a community’s shared values and sense of identity, says Dave Peters, a rural sociologist at Iowa State University. The community was progressive, not in the political sense, he says, but in outlook: Residents were strongly engaged in volunteerism and always looking to improve their town; innovative, entrepreneurial qualities that helped them weather the 1980s farm crisis.

But the community’s identity crumbled when the meatpacking industry broke the unions in the last gasp of the Reagan years. Wages plummeted from some $30 an hour to $7 or $8, kicking off a rapid demographic shift that saw the Latino population of less than 1% in 1990 explode to 17% a decade later and nearly 50% today.

In the mid-2000s, residents felt the influx of Latino immigrants was going to be “the end of their town,” says Peters, who’s tracked quality of life in 99 Iowa towns for decades. Community members didn’t like the packing plant and worried about crime and gang activity, fearing that “Denison was going to be some hub of the Mexican drug trade,” he says.

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But jobs and opportunity continued to attract Hispanic immigrants, and whites, for the most part, stayed. A new crisis emerged as two distinct Denisons grew, each separate from the other. There was the traditional white population, generally ignoring new people in town, and the minority population, forced to create their own networks.

Within the past decade, however, leaders eager to resolve social tensions emerged in both groups, a result, Peters says, of the Hispanic community becoming more established — Latinos “couldn’t be ignored” — and locals realizing that if Denison wanted to stay a regional trade center, they couldn’t swim against the current of diversity.

So the town leaned on the innovation and entrepreneurship that had buoyed it before. The community started a dual language program in the elementary school, hired more ESL teachers, bought more Spanish language books for the library and hosted a showing of “It’s a Wonderful Life” with Spanish subtitles — an invitation for Latinos to become part of the town’s closely held holiday tradition. The local Catholic priest even learned Spanish in the twilight of his career so the new members of his flock could celebrate Mass in a language they understood.

And, of course, Newell founded the high school mariachi program, which “is symbolic of Denison managing to work through these tensions, and of people, over time, trying to come to some understanding of each other and cohere as a community,” Peters says. 

The links between the white and minority populations are “much stronger now than they ever have been,” Peters says. The town is growing and — most importantly — residents see a life for themselves and their children beyond working the line in a packing plant.

Now, “in a lot of these Iowa towns with large packing plants, this investment in quality of life and this culture of openness and tolerance and trying to integrate people into the community through these social capital networks is a way to bring people into the community that really want to be there,” Peters says.

Put simply, he says, if a rural Iowa town wants to have a future, it must be welcoming to newcomers. “You have to find a way to have a place for them and make them feel valued,” he says.

“Or else you’re dead.”

‘Spanglish’ life leads to strong bonds 

Senior Jamie Abarca’s parents blast mariachi while they clean on Saturdays; junior Adrian Velazquez-Nieto’s do, too.

Velazquez was a grade-schooler when his mother turned up the radio dial to sing along to “El Rey” (“The King”), a classic mariachi song about the bare-knuckled life of a swashbuckling man. 

Denison High School senior Brian Ibarra sings as the Mariachi Reyes del Oeste, the high school’s top mariachi ensemble, performs during the 2022 Fiesta Mariachi at the Denison High School gymnasium in Denison, Iowa, on Saturday, April 9, 2022.
Photo by Bryon Houlgrave / The Register

My favorite, she said, humming along. At home later, he downloaded the song to his iPod Nano, playing and replaying the tune, lost in the melody. When he hears that opening trumpet flourish, he still thinks about that day, and about how he’ll pass that song to his children and they will to future generations.

Estevan Castellanos’ grandfather was in a mariachi band, a violin player and singer, just like he is now. As soon as the senior got the mariachi set list for this year, he asked his mother to circle songs that his grandfather once played.

“The whole culture of mariachi, I can relate to. It’s just so comforting,” Velazquez says. “It makes me feel at home, like I belong to something.”

Nearly all of the students at tonight’s festival have spent their entire lives in this town. Born in the era of two Denisons, the musicians came into themselves as community leaders were building bridges between the white and nonwhite populations. 

Duality, a sort of “Spanglish” life, as Estrada says, is what they know.

So none of the Latino students demurred when their white classmates joined mariachi. Standing side by side with blond-haired, blue-eyed kids wearing moños, Mexican bowties, that’s just another aspect of Spanglish life in Denison. 

“Seeing a white person playing mariachi, it made such a good impact in me. I’m like, ‘They want to be part of it!’” Estrada says. “I feel so appreciative of them being a part of it.”

Members of the Denison High School mariachi ensemble performs during the 2022 Fiesta Mariachi at the Denison High School in Denison on Saturday, April 9, 2022.
Photo by Bryon Houlgrave / The Register

At its core, mariachi is folk music, created to tell stories, to offer an avenue for people to relate to one another, Abarca says. The lessons in each song, about confidence, about broken hearts, about success, are universal. 

Having students of all races in mariachi “makes me feel safe, like people do care and they do want to learn,” Abarca says. “It just makes us feel heard”

That mariachi is for everyone — not just Latinos — is vital to the growing national movement to include the music in instrumental curriculum, says Robert Lopez, a mariachi expert and teacher in Las Vegas’ Clark County School District.

“We talk about breaking cultural barriers and integration of students of all cultures,” he says. “Integration goes both ways, not just Hispanic to white.”

“If people want to learn and be a part of our culture, why wouldn’t we let them?”

Like so much in this town, the mariachi program wears difference, in all its senses, with pride. And that self-worth, that honor, binds participants in the face of adversity.  

Bigger than the music

When fall hits in rural America, there is no bigger stage than Friday night — for the football team, the band, and the town.

And on this Friday, about three years into the program, the mariachi kids stepped to the front of the field for a specially arranged number with the marching band. Normally, Newell doesn’t have football players take part in halftime, but the mariachi singer insisted. He wanted to; he was proud to, and he’d wear his football jersey while he did.

As the show got under way, Newell heard a sound drifting on the wind. A chant, maybe? Did the visiting team’s cheerleaders start a routine?   

Are you hearing that? he asked the assistant nearest to him. 

Then the sound became clearer.

Taco! Taco! Burrito! Burrito!

With a flash, he was back in that middle school auditorium, pacing at the rear wall. He’d asked these kids to trust him, he’d taken them out on that ledge, and this was soul crushing.

But then a swell grew on the other side, the home side. Denison’s crowd got on their feet. They cheered louder and louder, stomped and clapped, until they drowned out the visitors.

“That feeling that night, it was this idea of: Who are you?” Newell says. “It was a coming together.”

“That made me think, ‘OK, this is bigger than the music. It’s bigger than the mariachi program. This is who we are. This is what makes us different.’”

The players today still harness that energy in the face of icy crowds, an easy task, Abarca says, knowing an entire town stands behind them.

Newell’s original goal in founding the mariachi group was to create a thriving music program, and numbers show he did. The band program has grown by 50% since he started, and every one of the various ensembles — jazz band, pep band — reflects the school’s demographics. A decade later, the students in music look like the students in school. 

“We’ve got kids involved in our program, invested in it, and they’re leaving here with an appreciation not just for mariachi music, but just people, just being open, accepting people,” he says. “They leave here better prepared for the world outside of those doors.”

Watching the program expand, motivating and changing kids of all races, caused Newell to reflect on his place in a shifting culture, too. When he took this job, he would have bristled at being called a racist — and if it’s defined as hating others for their skin color, he certainly wasn’t.

But he hadn’t allowed himself to really explore perspectives outside of what he was comfortable with, what he knew. And he let those colleagues’ words cling to the recesses of his mind.

In his decade of working with mariachi, his empathy has grown, and his self-awareness has, too.

“It gave me the perspective to go, ‘Yeah, I get it. I get that this is a problem,’” he says, “and it doesn’t matter which group of people we’re talking about, whether it’s Latino or it’s African American.”

Newell has coached a handful of other districts on starting mariachi programs over the years. A few have stuck, but most have fallen through. Sometimes, as students file in for first period band, he and Rihner wonder why. 

Members of the Denison High School mariachi ensemble get ready to perform during the 2022 Fiesta Mariachi at the Denison High School gymnasium in Denison, Iowa, on Saturday, April 9, 2022.
Photo by Bryon Houlgrave / The Register

“Like, what’s holding you back?” Rihner says. “I know it can be scary; change is scary. Jumping into a program that you know nothing about is scary.”

“But not doing it is equally as scary.”

In the back of the gym-turned-Fiesta hall, Israel Antonio Rodriguez Baez watches his son, Alexis, through tears. This, his son performing in a traje at school, this vision feels like a dream, one he couldn’t have begun to conjure when he moved to Iowa from El Salvador for meatpacking work. He takes out his phone, swiping through pictures, and the tears come anew. Just look, he says, how handsome.

“My wife and I, we’ve worked hard for them to do what they like,” he says. “For me, it’s something that made me proud.”

“I think about their future, and I hope one day they can be where they want to be.”

A few paces away, the middle-schoolers, who played one song earlier in the evening, listen intently. Some are cousins or siblings of the teens in Reyes del Oeste, Kings of the West — the next generation, the future of the program, in flesh and blood. 

The father of a Storm Lake player, whose high school mariachi ensemble performed too, leans over to their band director, Corbet Butler. How can we do this in our town? the man asks. 

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Just give me time, Butler says of the school’s three-year-old mariachi program. We’ll get there.

On stage, the musicians lift their instruments for the grand finale, light glinting off their belt buckles, each adorned with an eagle. The buckles were the only part of the old traje they kept; the eagle’s appearance on both the Mexico and Iowa flag acting as a reminder of their interconnectedness, of how their fates are intertwined.

Then the downbeat comes and the trumpets flourish, the opening measure to “El Rey” erupting as the crowd does, too — the unmistakable sound of joy, no matter what language you speak.

Members of the Denison High School mariachi ensemble pose for a group photo in a doorway in the high school gymnasium prior to the start of the 2022 Fiesta Mariachi celebration at the high school gymnasium in Denison on Saturday, April 9, 2022.
Photo by Bryon Houlgrave / The Register

Courtney Crowder, the Register’s Iowa Columnist, traverses the state’s 99 counties telling Iowans’ stories. She played clarinet for years, but decided words, not notes, were more her thing. Reach her at [email protected] or 515-284-8360. Follow her on Twitter @courtneycare.

This piece was made available to Hola Iowa through a partnership with the Des Moines Register and Register subscribers. To read the piece in English, with a beautiful visual display, go DesMoinesRegister.com. To subscribe to the Register, please click here.  

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