Los Changuitos: Mariachi music that shaped lives

2014-08-16T18:00:00Z Los Changuitos: Mariachi music that shaped livesBy Kathleen Allen Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star

Los Changuitos Feos de Tucson wasn’t the first orchestra to play mariachi music in this country.

But you could make a solid argument that the youth orchestra, celebrating its 50th year next weekend, had a lot to do with making the music big in the U.S.

Consider:

  • Five of the original members of Mariachi Cobre, founded in 1971 and the house band at Disney World’s Epcot center, were graduates of the Changos, the nickname for the group.
  • In 2004, Changos graduate Jeff Nevin launched the first college degree program in mariachi at Southwestern College in Chula Vista, California; colleges around the country have followed suit.
  • High school mariachi programs didn’t exist in Tucson or elsewhere when the Changos began. Now, they are found across the country. Nevin was behind the drive in San Diego, where 20 high schools have mariachi programs, all with scholarship programs based on the one offered by the Changos. Gilbert Velez, one of the original members of the Changos, is writing a book about the mariachi movement in this country. He says about 2,000 high schools in this country now have mariachi programs.

In the coming week, alumni of the program, parents of alumni, fans, and even Mariachi Cobre, gather to celebrate 50 years, culminating in a massive mariachi concert on Saturday.

The beginnings

It was 1964. David Ruiz was about 12 and a killer trumpet player. He had won a spot in a local boys band, but dropped out.

“I had tried to fit in, but at that time my perception was that I’m brown, they are not; I’m not part of the clique.”

One day, his mother told him about a mariachi band for youths that was forming. She gently urged him to find out more. Ruiz headed to the basement of All Saints Church, where the Changos got their start.

“That’s where I met Father Rourke,” says Ruiz, now a physician and university professor in Vancouver, Washington.

The Irish Rev. Charles Rourke, who died in 1993, was a jazz musician before he became a priest. He was young, progressive and energetic, and he longed to find something for the youth of Tucson to do other than lift weights over the summer.

About that time, a bus full of orphans from Mexico came through and performed a mariachi concert.

“Father said, ‘Hey, this is a good venue for helping the kids appreciate their Hispanic heritage,’” recalls Velez, who joined Ruiz and five other boys in that church basement.

“Four of us were in elementary, two in high school,” remembers Velez, now 64 and the mariachi director at the University of Arizona School of Music.

“Our first performance, we had six guitars and a trumpet and played a church picnic,” says Velez. “We knew six songs, and when we were finished playing, they wanted more. So we played the same six songs, over and over.”

“We were reconnecting with our culture,” says Ruiz, 63. “We were a source of pride for the Latino community, and that was a certain responsibility that we all carried.”

Within two years, Los Changuitos Feos — the ugly little monkeys — had established a reputation. The group traveled to such places as Guadalajara, Chicago, and Washington, where they performed at Richard Nixon’s 1968 inaugural parade.

At the time, mariachi was a male-dominated field. It took 17 years for the first female to venture forth — Dolores Montanez Noperi joined in June of 1981; six months later, Bridget Keating became the second. Today, half of the 14 musicians in Changos are females.

College for Changos

As the orchestra’s reputation grew, requests for performances came in — paid performances.

So Father Rourke established a scholarship program. A portion of the proceeds went to travel, uniforms and other expenses, and a portion was put into the scholarship fund. Members who had played with the group for at least two years, maintained a B average, and went to college immediately after high school received scholarship money.

That money helped Ruiz attend Stanford, Nevin the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and Velez the University of Arizona.

Over the last decade close to $500,000 in scholarship funds have been given out.

The ripples

For many of the Chango alumni, the music never stopped. A sampling:

  • Gilbert Velez was one of the original members of the professional orchestra Mariachi Cobre. After 10 years, he left and founded Mariachi America, which played at Velez’s El Mariachi Restaurant and Cantina in Tucson until it closed in 2001. Today, in addition to teaching mariachi at the UA, he is director of Nogales High School’s orchestra, Mariachi Apache.

“Through Changos, we won the respect for the Mexican culture from Anglos, and won the respect from Mexicans for Mexican Americans,” says Velez.

  • David Ruiz went on to play trumpet in the Stanford University marching band, and continues to play today — he is in a small jazz group that performs around the Vancouver, Washington, area. What the graduate of the University of Washington School of Medicine learned in the Changos informs his work, he says.

“To this day, when I talk to residents and I’m teaching, I talk about medicine as performance art — you have to know the science, but it’s also about relating to people. My first training for that came from the Changuitos.”

  • Jeff Nevin, who joined the group in 1984, had never thought of a music career, but after Changos, he went on to get his Ph.D. in music theory. He continues to play professionally, as well as to oversee the Mariachi Scholarship Foundation for high schoolers in San Diego, and teach mariachi at Southwestern College.

“All of this, the degrees, studying music, all these crazy things I’ve done, all trace back to that group,” says Nevin, now 45. “What we have here in San Diego, everything goes back to Changos.”Salvador Gallegos, 41, wasn’t particularly well-versed in mariachi music when he joined the Changos in 1988. He went on to study music in college and has performed around the country. Today he is the music director of the Changos, heads up the mariachi program at Desert View High School, directs the professional mariachi group Mariachi Sonido de Mexico, and performs with his brothers in the Los Gallegos Band.

“Los Changuitos Feos promotes the musicians’ culture,” says Gallegos. “It’s where students can better themselves and move ahead in life.”Samantha Romero Gastellum played with the Changos for five years, starting in 2002, when she was in the eighth grade. The violin player, now 26, was helped in college with the scholarship funds. Now, she teaches mariachi in Las Vegas’ Clark County School District.

“It really changed my whole life,” Gastellum says of her Changos experience. “Being part of something that was so historic for Tucson and for mariachi music was exciting for me. ... Now I teach music every day, and it all started with the Changos.”

The beat goes on

Today, Los Changuitos has 14 members from various Tucson schools. It’s a program that parents and students alike champion.

DeeDee Guzman recognizes that the commitment for a parent is almost as deep as it is for a student. She chauffeurs her daughter, Andrea, around to Changos practices at least twice a week, and gets her to performances.

“One of the things the program does is teach these kids responsibility and discipline,” she says.

Andrea, now 15 and a sophomore at San Miguel High School, started with the Changos when she was in the fifth grade.

“You have to work a lot together,” says the young violin player, who practices roughly two hours a day and spends about eight hours a week in rehearsal with Changos.

Mariachi music, she says, “speaks to my roots. … You feel you can play with a lot more feeling because you know what you are singing about, you know what the composer is trying to get out.”

She has forged deep friendships with the other performers, but there are important lessons she’s learned, too, she says.

“You have to be able to communicate, and work together with others, and see how they learn,” she says. “It has taught me a lot of responsibility and time management.”

These days, the Changos play the 8 a.m. mass at San Agustine Cathedral the third Sunday of every month. Most weekends are taken up with at least one performance.

“They do over 150 concerts a year,” says Alex Garcia, 29, a volunteer board member and the point person for bookings. The Tucson police officer was a member of a youth mariachi program other than the Changos, plays trumpet and the guitarrón, and focuses on music and music education in his free time.

“I feel very strongly about the importance of mariachi music here in Tucson,” he says. “Not just an idea, but a program students can go to and learn correctly and well enough to have a future in music. Changos is a good program to do that.”

Contact reporter Kathleen Allen at

kallen@azstarnet.com or 573-4128.

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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