A top-selling mariachi album landed a prestigious Latin Grammy nomination. Its main singers? They're public school kids from Chicago.
The unlikely story started with an idea that came to Chicago resident César Maldonado.
Born in the Brighton Park area of the city, Maldonado's parents were immigrants from Durango, Mexico. His parents were factory workers and did not know English. Maldonado excelled in school, and at 33, is a successful investment banker living in Chicago.
Maldonado wanted to give back, and he remembered that his elementary school never offered music or arts classes. He decided this is where he could make a difference for the next generation of young Mexican-Americans.
Maldonado did not have a music background, except for a deep appreciation for mariachi music — his parents played it constantly on the radio while he was growing up. So he decided to found the Mariachi Heritage Foundation (MHF) in 2013. Since then, the non-profit has grown to incorporate mariachi music education in the curriculum of eight of Chicago's public schools, involving 2,100 students in grades 3 through 8.
As part of one of MHF's programs, sixteen students, ages 11-to 18, were chosen, by audition, to take part in creating the group's debut album, "Nuestra Herencia" ("Our Heritage"). After only about a year playing together, the group's album was released this past May — and then it just took off.
"Nuestra Herencia" reached #2 Top Latin Album on iTunes- marking it one of the most successful mariachi album releases in history. It's also believed to be the first major mariachi recordings released by a student ensemble in the U.S. It nabbed a Latin Grammy nomination in the "Best Ranchero/Mariachi Album" category.
"It's beyond anything we thought to accomplish," Maldonado told NBC Latino, adding that the group also recently played at the prestigious Kennedy Center to celebrate Mexican Independence Day with world-renowned musicians from both sides of the border. "These kids have a passion for the music."
"Nuestra Herencia" was produced and arranged by Los Angeles mariachi master José Hernandez. It also features celebrated guest musicians from Mexico such as, Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlán, and the top three Los Angeles ensembles, Los Camperos, Sol de México, and the all-female Reyna de Los Angeles recorded vocals on the album. The CD also includes tributes to Juan Gabriel and José Alfredo Jiménez.
"I tell people that mariachi is a sleeping giant in this country," Hernandez said in a statement. "This album might open people's eyes to what's happening to mariachi education in this country. It's really growing."
According to the U.S. Census, Chicago's Hispanic population grew by 17,000, from 2015 to 2016, and is now the second-largest ethnic group in the city (30 percent of the population). Maldonado hopes that through the integratiion of mariachi into the schools' curriculums, it will help the students form a connection to their roots and thus increase their pride and self-esteem.
Maldonado said the idea for album came about in 2016, when the Latin Grammys, for the first time, suspended the mariachi genre for not having enough submissions.
"I always like to push the envelope," Maldonado said. "Mariachi as a genre has been losing a following, because the big names have gone away or passed away —so you don't really listen to it on the radio," he said. "I decided to do an album with the students as a challenge for them."
Maldonado hired the acclaimed José Hernandez and brought him to Chicago four times to work with the students.
"I was extremely proud with how much they learned and absorbed," said Maldonado. "José really cares about mariachi education — he spends a lot of time traveling around the country educating in schools," he said. "Mariachi is now in schools in Idaho, Wisconsin…It's becoming a relevant music form which is engaging students."
Maldonado is excited for the future, for both the genre and his band.
"We're going to be touring on the weekends," said Maldonado. "Next summer, we're going to do a European tour, and our next album will be recorded in December, during Christmas break in LA, and it should be ready by the spring."
Maldonado thinks mariachi is almost becoming more popular in the U.S. than in its native Mexico.
"Currently Mexico seems to favor banda, norteño, or American or European pop, and there hasn't been a huge presence in promoting mariachi music," explained Maldonado. "In the U.S., mariachi has been growing, because schools have committed to teaching it to its students."