Instructors and master students perform Cielito Lindo in one of the big rooms during the workshop sessions of the 2016 Tucson International Mariachi Conference.

A.E. Araiza / Arizona Daily Star 2016

Johnny Contreras was 8 years old when he went to his first Tucson International Mariachi Conference workshop.

It launched a lifelong love for and a career in mariachi music.

The 35th annual conference began with workshops April 26 and culminates in a daylong fiesta April 29. Contreras is a prime example of the event’s aim: education.

“It’s not only the music that provides our students with something valuable in their lives. It’s the education, too,” says Alfonso Dancil, chairman of the organization’s board of directors. “The conference gives them a desire to make themselves better—not only in music, but in their future careers.”

For Contreras, now 44, the workshops lured him back year after year. By the time he was 15, he was giving private guitar lessons. He became one of the conference’s workshop leaders when he was 18. And he has been the mariachi director at Pueblo High School for 15 years.

“The conference became part of my upbringing,” says Contreras.

The workshops are open to students of all levels. While mariachi experience isn’t necessary, beginners are expected to know basic sheet music. More than 900 students participate each year, says Dancil.

Contreras learned much at the workshops, but they have done more than that: They have helped “validate mariachi music,” he says.

“A lot of people have this certain idea of what mariachi music is: fat, drunk guys in a bar playing way too loud,” he says.

“But the instructors at the workshops are so virtuosic. They’re the best teachers in the world. Imagine you’re in Little League and the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox are your teachers,” he says. “That’s what the mariachi conference is like. These guys can play mariachi, but they can also play Beethoven, Mozart, and Bach. To me, the mariachi conference validates being a mariachi musician.”

Many of those future mariachi musicians get to show what they’ve learned this year at an open-to-the-public concert April 27.

“It’s a rewarding feeling to see these kids in the workshops, and then to see them in the showcase,” says Dancil, who also works in advertising sales at the Arizona Daily Star. “It puts a smile on your face and makes you want to dance and sing.”

Students in the workshops invest time, energy, and effort into their music and performances. And it is the performing that is the highlight, says Contreras.

“When you study for a test, you have to wait weeks for it to be graded,” he says. “But with mariachi, the reward is immediate. You perform and the crowd’s reaction is instantaneous. There’s nothing like it.”

Gloria Knott is a University of Arizona journalism student apprenticing at the Star.