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Semillas Mariachi

Los Changuitos Feos de Tucson celebrates 50 years and the mariachi movement

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Standing in the middle of the Stanford University football field, David Ruiz wondered what he was doing there, his trumpet in his hands ready to perform.

The stands were quiet, with the exception of occasional coughing, and for a moment he had to remind himself, "You know how to play," and then a set of directions went through his head: project forward and feet apart.

It was 1972, and Ruiz, a member of the Stanford band, was picked to perform a solo version of the national anthem. The directions that quickly went through his head that helped him play his heart out that night came from his years playing with Los Changuitos Feos de Tucson (the Ugly Monkeys), one of the first mariachi youth groups started in the 1960s by an Anglo priest in the basement of All Saints Church.

"It was a really surreal moment for me as the drum roll started to wind down and I heard a few people coughing in the stands," Ruiz recalled.

"I would have never experienced that had I not been part of (Los Changuitos) and had the experiences I did."

Ruiz, a family physician by training and now residency program director at a branch of the University of Washington School of Medicine in Vancouver, Washington, is from the first generation of Los Changuitos, founded in 1964 by Father Charles Rourke, an Irish-American Catholic priest as a Catholic Youth Organization project.

This year, the group celebrates its 50th anniversary with a series of workshops, a concert and a reunion, bringing Changos together from throughout the United States, including Ruiz, who will be there, along with his wife, brother and parents.

Being there with his parents is huge to Ruiz, and he suspects that those of all Chango generations probably feel that same way. While Rourke is credited with starting what's often considered the first of such mariachi youth groups, Ruiz and others told the Tucson Weekly that it's the parents who are probably responsible for the group lasting all these years.

"The parents of all the first group of kids were unbelievable. They threw themselves into it in a way that would make soccer parents blush. They were totally committed. They were amazing," Ruiz said.

"They took us everywhere–our chaperones, out chauffeurs and our faithful audience in those early days when we didn't sound so great. They were always there to support us and kept encouraging us."

THE FOLKLORE OF TUCSON MARIACHI HISTORY

Rourke and All Saints. These incredible steadfast parents. A music program that produced amazing adults who went on to great accomplishments. It's all part of the history of mariachi in Tucson, but this particular history sometimes feels like folklore. Most of the stories remain the same with just a few details changing here and there, but there are a few that are certain—the lives of the generations of Changos the past 50 years might be very different if not for mariachi, and the mariachi movement of the U.S. would be different too, perhaps even nonexistent.

According to Chango history, Rourke came to Tucson in 1962—the new parish priest from New York. He was a jazz pianist and he fell in love with Mexican folk music at local restaurants and trips to Nogales, Sonora. But what may have motivated the priest to start his own group was a 1963 performance by Mariachi Infantil de Monterrey, a group of children from a Monterrey orphanage who traveled through Mexico and the U.S. It wasn't long before the Changos were traveling themselves, earning the title of Ambassadors of Goodwill in Mexico and regular gigs at Disneyland—the company even sent a plane to pick up the youth performers.

Some Changos said they picked up those guitars to impress girls—after all, the Beatles were all the rage and it couldn't hurt a boy back then to play guitar, or even the guitarron or vihuela. Some Changos said they realized the importance of their connection to mariachi when they saw their grandmothers crying after they played what ended up being their favorite song. But what's undeniable in Chango folklore is the world that opened up for the youth performers and how travel helped them see and experience life beyond their Tucson neighborhoods.

"I would not have heard of Stanford University if I had not been on a different trajectory in my Menlo Park neighborhood," Ruiz said.

"Performing with the Changuitos provided a venue well outside the usual performance opportunities one would have and maybe because of that I had a slightly different profile to the college admission committee. I shouldn't down play my academic record. It was good enough, but it gave me that edge. I was very unique and different and maybe it made me look a little more attractive."

The experience as a Chango offered up something else too, what some describe as a super self-confidence that guided their lives, even if they didn't go to places like Stanford. Ruiz recalled arriving to Stanford late. He missed the required band camp in order to join the school's infamous band because he was finishing a Changuitos tour.

"I wanted to try out, but they said I couldn't because I missed band camp. I asked if I could challenge the last chair, but they said 'We don't do that here,'" Ruiz said.

"I was stuck. That music was part of me at the time. I was forced to watch the first game or two from the sidelines. But then the flu hit campus and I got an opportunity to audition because they needed a horn player," he said.

He hated carrying music, so he quickly memorized what they were going to play. He played on the field in formation. "I was used to projecting my sound forward as mariachis do. That caught the attention of band director." Ruiz ended up managing the band.

"Everybody that has played in this group has felt it in a different way. For me personally to this day, when I speak to the residents I teach daily I talk about this as performance art. The Changuitos experience makes us carry ourselves a different way. I have a focus on excellence."

MARIACHI: TUCSON FIRST ETHNIC STUDIES PROGRAM?

While Ruiz's brother Mack chose a career in music, he chose medicine, which he describes as a sometimes difficult path. In medical school, if he ever felt isolated, it was the Chango discipline ethic that kept him going. But what about cultural connection? What impact did mariachi have in connecting Ruiz to his family history?

"I do think of it in a very quiet reflective way. As much as I was part of the '60s, I was also part of the '70s when there was a tremendous awakening to what ethnicity was. At that point there was a lot of conflict around, but when I look back on it I can smile inwardly. It was an awakening. There was a pride in reconnecting with who you are and your roots," Ruiz said.

"And I know I've been able to take that forward. When I completed my training I married someone from the Pacific Northwest. My original plan was to come back to Tucson and there was a certain element of guilt that I didn't return," Ruiz said.

But as he began his medical career in southwestern Washington, Ruiz said an invisible Latino community emerged. For years, he said, he was the only Spanish-speaking provider in the area. When he helped start the residency program more than 20 years ago, he hired as many bilingual faculty and residents as he could. Today, the program's clinic has nine Spanish-speaking clinicians.

"All those dots connect and go back to the basement of All Saints Church," he said.

It wouldn't be too far off to say that Daniel Buckley, a Tucson composer and filmmaker, has gone through a period of obsession with Tucson's mariachi scene. It started when he was on staff at the Tucson Citizen and it's continued through deep friendships he's formed over the years, helping out local mariachi groups doing video footage of their concerts and more. The annual Tucson International Mariachi Conference has also been part of that.

Last year, he began "The Mariachi Miracle," a documentary film project on the birth and evolution of mariachi and folklorico dance in Tucson. As Buckley worked writing about music and the mariachi festival for the Citizen, it was there he began to understand the importance of mariachi to the community and how everything connected. He saw how this social movement was created in this city, and that it happened to correlate with educational trends, like higher grades and lower drop-out rates.

Buckley said he's positive that without Los Changuitos Feos, Tucson wouldn't be the mariachi city it is today. "Almost everything comes out of that group—the first youth mariachi in the United States."

Randy Carillo, part of the first generation of Changos, started Mariachi Cobre, a world-recognized mariachi group that was hired by Disney World to perform regularly at the Epcot Center. While Cobre was performing at the mariachi conference in San Antonio, the Changuitos joined them. There, they met the members of Mexico's Mariachi Vargas, headlining and leading workshops.

They all left with a profound impression, Buckley said.

They returned wanting to create a mariachi conference in Tucson. That's how that started. But there are more connections to the Changos—the mariachi program at Tucson Magnet High was started by Mack Ruiz, a Chango and Cobre.

That program grew to other schools—Davis Elementary and Pueblo High. From the conference comes Linda Ronstadt's connection to Vargas and her "Canciones de Mi Padre" recordings. Other Changos started programs in other areas of the country and developed curriculum and became professional mariachi musicians. It's the scholarship program the Changos have that Buckley has equally found impressive. Through all their performances, they've raised just shy of a half million dollars in scholarship funds to send Changos to college.

Maybe this, combined with that acquired super self-confidence, is why the group has produced people like state Senator Frank Felix to Jerry Gay, one of the engineers who helped build the Hubble Space Telescope.

"That's the thing that got me—this idea that something historic was happening. Reflecting back on the early '70s when I was a freshman at UA there were so few Mexican-Americans on campus," Buckley said.

"All of a sudden the kids I'm covering at the different mariachi showcases I start to see them on campus—grown, bright and excelling and giving back to their community."

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