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The Mariachi Miracle 

A new Tucson-centric film about empowerment and transformation

click to enlarge The largest mariachi ensemble performance ever (555 players), in Tucson, circa 2010.

Courtesy of Dan Buckley

The largest mariachi ensemble performance ever (555 players), in Tucson, circa 2010.

During his 46 years in Tucson, Daniel Buckley has developed an immense respect for Mexican-American culture. Originally from Catskill, New York, Buckley moved here in '71 to study lunar geology at the University of Arizona, and ended up working at Record Bar, the old record store in the El Con Mall. There, he was turned-on to killer new music and exposed to a cultural diversity he'd never experienced.

"Our clientele was either from South Tucson or South of the border," Buckley says. "We had doctors and lawyers, drug dealers, pimps and hookers. Everybody likes music. All the drag queens, all the strippers, everybody came to Record Bar to buy their shit. They taught me so much about music and life. How to conduct yourself in an honorable way. They were far more distinguished than my Anglo counterparts and me."

Buckley's connection with, and advocacy for, the Mexican-American community grew out of these interactions. Having done time writing for Newsreal Magazine and Tucson Weekly, Buckley eventually earned free reign as a music and culture writer at the Tucson Citizen from 1987 until 2009.

"When I got into the daily newspaper, I was out four or five nights a week, he said. "I was covering classical music, folk music, opera, the Mariachi Conference."

While attending mariachi events at El Casino Ballroom, El Rio, The Stardust Ballroom, he was treated with impartiality and developed a deep love and respect for the culture. "I was seduced," he adds.Which brings us to The Mariachi Miracle.

"[This] is a film and book project about the youth mariachi and folklórico movement that started in Tucson with Los Changuitos Feos in 1964," Buckley said.

The literal translation of Los Changuitos Feos is 'the ugly little monkeys,' but with a political and ironic undercurrent.

"You're starting with days of segregation," he continued. "Days when, if you went to Fox Theater, if your skin was darker than a certain shade you had to sit upstairs. If you went to the Pioneer Hotel and if you were Mexican-American you could only go there on Sundays. These were things that were institutionalized.

"I've heard over and over of guidance counselors institutionally telling Mexican-Americans ... 'you're not good enough,' 'you're not smart enough,' 'you need to lower your expectations.' This is the climate the Los Changuitos Feos movement came into. The film is about how these youth mariachis became agents of transformation of Tucson socially, economically, politically, educationally and of course artistically. That's what the Mariachi Movement has done; raise expectations."

It was former City Manager and Los Changuitos Feos board member, Joel Valdez, who first recognized education is the great equalizer and implemented a scholarship program to put members of youth mariachis through college by investing proceeds. This innovative program became a template for youth mariachi programs across the United States.

"Youth mariachi is not just a Southwestern phenomenon," Buckley said. "Wherever there are farm workers there are mariachi programs to help lift those families out of poverty and give a new trajectory in life. That's what The Mariachi Miracle is about."

The cornerstones of youth mariachi programs were set by Richard Carranza, Superintendent of Schools in Houston and founder of Mariachi Aztlan de Pueblo High School. Buckley elaborated about this model; "You have to have a B+ average. If you were involved with a gang you were gone. If you were truant in school you were gone. You had to be college oriented. You had to be thinking about your future and your community's future."

Today, more than $480,000 in grants by the Changuitos Feos organization have transformed youth mariachi musicians and folklórico dancers into college graduates. And the success stories are numerous. "Out of that first group of Los Changuitos came one of the aerospace engineers who helped design the Hubble Space Telescope [Jerry Gay]. The youngest state senator in Arizona history [Frank Felix]. A University of Arizona vice-president [Joel Valdez]. One of the foremost martial artists [Randy Carrillo] in the world. A doctor [David Ruiz]," Buckley said. "And most had parents that had never graduated high school."

Never has this story been more important or relevant to tell. "When I look at the Trump Administration and the shade he throws continuously on Mexican-Americans, I want to point out the reality. That they are creative, highly motivated, self-reliant. They weren't looking for a handout from the school system. They invented that scholarship program themselves, and then the school system stole it," Buckley laughs. "As far as I know, it is the only educational movement in America that started with an ethnic community then moved into the mainstream. That's pretty remarkable."

"I really want Americans to see how Republicans talk family values, and Mexican-Americans live family values every day," Buckley added. "I want them to see how this community has changed. Not just as a result of mariachi, but to see a parallel in the political community."

Five years in the making, The Mariachi Miracle now moves into the film editing and post production phase. Buckley hopes to get the film out by June or July of next year, to coincide with Toronto International Film Festival and Austin Film Festival 2018. But he needs more funds to continue.

"Filmmaking is really being a beggar," he said. "That's what the bulk of your work is. Yes, you're filming all the time and logging footage, metadata ... but the reality is you've got to find funding to do it all.

"Last year, for the first time in my life, I had the power cut off in the middle of the summer when it was a 110 degrees. But, when you are committed to a project, you say, come hell or high water we are going to make this damn thing happen. Because it is important to my community. It's important to me. It's important to America that this story be told. And no better time to do it than with the backdrop of Donald Trump. He really put some spring in my step to get this [project] out. Every day I look at television and think ... Jesus Christ how did this ever happen in America? Seriously. And we need to get the word out about what reality is here on the border."

The Mariachi Miracle is a thoroughly American story with a Mexican sound. Without hesitation Buckley offers, "It's the best story that I am ever going to get to tell. Bar none. Regardless that we haven't produced a film or a book yet ... we have impressed upon the Mariachi community that they did something amazing. If I were to die tomorrow, they would know that they did something truly transformational for their community, their state and their country." Something truly miraculous.


More by Xavier Omar Otero

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