The music of The University of Texas-Pan American's Mariachi has been heard in some of the world's top venues in its 21-year history. On Tuesday, Oct. 19, however, the group performed at its most prominent stop yet - the White House - before an appreciative audience that included President Barack Obama.
"When he (Obama) walked in we had already started playing, we could see him ... we were thrilled .. our jaws dropped, our eyes widened ... the President of the United States was in the room with us," said UTPA junior James Escobedo, a violinist in the group since 2008 and a music education major. "I don't think anything can top this experience."
"The President said he was proud of us that we were all mariachi musicians who were also going to college, studying and getting our degrees. The whole trip, you know, was about education," he said.
UTPA's Mariachi Aztlan, one of three mariachi performance groups at the University, was invited to perform at the signing ceremony of an Executive Order renewing and enhancing the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanics - an initiative established in 1990 by former president George H. W. Bush and continued by subsequent administrations to provide guidance on how to best improve educational opportunities and outcomes for Hispanic students.
The signing ceremony followed a National Education Summit and Call to Action hosted by the U.S. Department of Education that began Oct. 18 and brought together experts and community leaders from around the country on issues ranging from early childhood learning to higher education. Locally, UTPA accommodated attendees at a summit watch party and webinars hosted by the initiative to engage citizens nationwide.
UTPA Dean of Arts and Humanities, Dr. Dahlia Guerra, who accompanied the group, said UTPA's Mariachi was selected to perform based on recent awards at national competitions. This past summer, the UTPA Mariachi Aztlan won at both the university and professional level as "Grand Champions" of the Mariachi Spectacular Competition 2010. The group has also been recognized by the Texas House of Representatives and Texas Senate for promoting the music and traditions of the Hispanic culture. In November 2010, UTPA's Mariachi will perform with the Houston Grand Opera in concerts of the world's first mariachi opera. However, Guerra said, this performance will be one of the group's most memorable.
"This is the first time the UTPA Mariachi has performed in the White House and for a United States president. They played both prior and after the signing in the Grand Foyer of the East Room after President Obama requested a song. We were, of course, delighted," Guerra said.
"It talks about somebody who comes from far away and offers a song as an offering to show thanks," Mendoza said.
Guerra said security was tight, with screening by X-rays and dogs. The foyer was cleared completely before Obama entered and the signing actually occurred. After the signing, the mariachi continued to perform for the 200 guests invited by the White House for the event including The University of Texas System Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa, M.D., and former CEO of the National Council of La Raza and recently confirmed Ambassador to the Dominican Republic, Raul Yzaguirre.
The signing event not only highlighted the UTPA mariachi performers but also included an introduction of Obama by seventh-grade Brownsville student and chess champion Javier Garcia. Other South Texas representation at the ceremony included Dr. Juliet Garcia, University of Texas at Brownsville/Texas Southmost College president; Jo Ann Gama, co-founder of the Valley's IDEA Public Schools and a UTPA alumna; Dr. Pedro Martinez, UTPA Department of Music chair; and Jessica Salinas, director of community events, UTPA Office of Community Engagement. UTPA music lecturer and Mariachi director Frank Lorea was also there to lead the group.
The latest Executive Order signed at the ceremony will more actively engage communities nationwide in the process of improving the education of Latino students, now one in five of all students in the United States, by establishing public-private partnerships between key people from within and outside the education system; establishing a Presidential Advisory Commission and national network of community leaders to provide input on the development and implementation of education policy and programs that impact Hispanics; and forming a Federal Interagency Working Group to exchange resources and address issues impacting Hispanics including housing, health, finance, employment and education.
The Executive Order was based on feedback gathered by the initiative staff from more than 100 community conversations across the country with experts in education, community leaders from more than 30 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, and from comments from more than 10,000 Americans on how to develop real solutions to the challenges confronting the Hispanic community in education.
"Latino students are more likely to attend our lowest-performing schools, more likely to learn in larger class sizes, more likely to drop out at higher rates. Fewer than half take part in early childhood education. Only half graduate on time from high school," Obama said at the signing. "Now, this is not just a Latino problem; this is an American problem."
Obama said making sure the offer of a world-class education is there for all children, regardless of race, is more than just a moral obligation.
"It is an economic imperative if we want to succeed in the 21st century," said Obama, who has previously stated his goal of bringing the U.S. back to the top globally in the number of college graduates by 2020.
For all the musicians except Mendoza, the trip to Washington, D.C., was their first and they were able to take a quick tour of some of its historic sites before departing. Mendoza said representing the University at the event was a great responsibility but also a great honor.
"I feel very blessed to not only represent UTPA but my Hispanic community and all my community, regardless if we are black, Hispanic or white. We are all part of the South Texas community down here," he said.
View a video of the Oct. 19 Executive Order signing at http://www.whitehouse.gov/photos-and-video/video/2010/10/19/educational-excellence-hispanic-americans.