WENATCHEE, Wash. – Oscar Licon is not only going to be the first person in his family to attend college. He was the first to graduate high school. For that, he credits one thing: mariachi.
"Without mariachi, I don’t think I’d be going to university," Licon said.
Licon is one of 100 students at Wenatchee High School who are enrolled in mariachi, an in-school program that teaches students how to play Mexican folk music using guitars, guitarrons, violins and harps. Another 150 students are taking mariachi classes at Wenatchee’s Pioneer Middle School.
Mariachi is a popular musical genre for the families who moved to Central Washington to work in Chelan County’s orchards. With Hispanic students making up 40 percent of the high school's population, it's the students they are now helping to grow.
"The most important part is that you remember who you are, inside and outside," said student Andrea Cuevas.
Ramon Rivera runs the school district's mariachi program.
"We do teach them to be good musicians, we do teach them how to win contests and score superior ratings, but my goal is to make them leaders," Rivera said.
The dropout rate for Hispanic students was much higher before the mariachi program took off, Rivera said.
"They do better in school," he said. "It builds cultural pride, self esteem."
Statistics show the dropout rate for Wenatchee’s Hispanic students has decreased about 20 percent in the past 10 years.
"They find a lot of opportunity and they look back and say, 'Wow, I can’t imagine if I had dropped out,'" said Esmeralda Garibay, who recently graduated after finishing her senior year as a member of Mariachi Huenachi, the school’s premier group.
As a child, Garibay was diagnosed with 50 percent hearing loss and told she would never play music.
"I proved everybody wrong," she said with a laugh. "I’m a big star."
Non-Hispanic students, like Kaylin Ochs, are also taking the classes. Ochs knew limited Spanish before joining mariachi.
“I knew probably my colors, my numbers up to 10,” she said.
Next school year she will be joining Mariachi Huenachi.
In the meantime, Licon will be attending Central Washington University with help from a $6,800 scholarship. The giant check hangs from his bedroom wall.
“It’s a big milestone in my family to be able to get a bigger education,” he said.
Rivera said he hopes stories like that are contagious.
“They’re going on to university and they are going to become doctors, lawyers, senators, whatever they want to be,” he said. “But it starts right here.”