It’s not every day that former Tucsonans, whose hearts and roots remain in the desert valley, have an opportunity to return home. That day has come for Roberto Martinez, a long-time and widely respected mariachi.

Martinez is coming home as the new director of Mariachi Los Diablitos de Sunnyside High School and as the school’s mariachi educator.

For Tucson’s mariachi community — and it’s a large one, stretching beyond the city — Martinez’s return is big news. The longtime member of Tucson-born Mariachi Cobre, Martinez will succeed the late Cuco Del Cid, who died in January and served as Sunnyside’s mariachi director for more than 20 years.

Del Cid was internationally known for his mariachi chops and at Sunnyside, where he developed one of the first high school programs in Tucson, considered by many the birthplace of mariachi music in the country. On Monday, Sunnyside High School will celebrate Del Cid by renaming the auditorium after him.

Martinez, who for nearly four years has been teaching mariachi to Chicago school children, called Del Cid, whom he knew over the years, “an institution” and expressed admiration for him.

But with Martinez’s appointment — the Sunnyside school board approved his hiring in April — not only will Sunnyside’s program continue to maintain the legacy that Del Cid created, Tucson’s mariachi teachers and students will be enriched with Martinez’s knowledge and experience.

“First and foremost he’s a Sunnyside graduate and an icon in the mariachi world,” said Sunnyside Superintendent Steve Holmes, himself a former instructor of mariachi at Roskruge Middle School. “We knew we needed to find someone to be that next stage in the legacy of Cuco and Sunnyside’s program. We picked a rock star in his genre.”

Martinez began his mariachi training with Los Changuitos Feos de Tucson, considered the first youth mariachi group in the United States. Four years after graduating from Sunnyside High School in 1974, Martinez joined Mariachi Cobre, which formed in 1971 and has performed across the country and internationally.

Cobre relocated to Florida where it established a home at Disney World’s Epcot theme park. Martinez became an integral part of Cobre, honing his skills on the vihuela, a small five-string guitar. Additionally, Martinez has taught mariachi at the Tucson International Mariachi Conference and created mariachi curriculum for the conference, which attracts hundreds of students every year.

John Contreras, director of Mariachi Aztlán de Pueblo High School, said Sunnyside’s hiring of Martinez, who was one of Contreras’ first instructors at the mariachi conference, is a major step in the continued development and progress of the music in Tucson’s schools.

“Roberto is known as one of the foremost vihuela players in mariachi music,” said Contreras, who added, “but he is an educator first and foremost.”

Martinez is thrilled to return to Tucson. He had often thought of returning home, but he never believed it would be to teach. He said he consulted with his wife, Josie Lopez Martinez, a Cholla High School graduate, and their four young-adult children.

He said, “The kids said ‘do it!’”

Holmes basically said the same words to Martinez when Martinez expressed interest in the job.

“I immediately said the stars are aligning for Sunnyside,” Holmes said.

Martinez, said Holmes, will not only be a valuable mentor to other mariachi educators in Tucson but will be a rich addition to the school’s fine arts program.

“Mariachi is one of those assets that speaks to our culture and history,” said Holmes.

And therein lies the importance of mariachi education in public schools. It reaffirms the culture and history behind the music and its origins. When the students engage in the music, it transforms them, gives them a deep sense of pride in who they are and in their studies as well.

“All of a sudden they just light up,” Martinez, 61, said of his young students at Calmeca Academy of Fine Arts & Dual Language in Chicago, a K-8 school whose students are overwhelmingly Latino.

Martinez said he is up to the challenge to uphold the work that Del Cid pioneered at Sunnyside. He added that he’ll bring his own perspective and lessons to Los Diablitos and other students.

And that one key perspective and core lesson that Martinez will share with his students?

“If they study hard, doors will open and good things will happen,” he said.

Ernesto Portillo Jr. is editor of La Estrella de Tucsón. He can be reached at 573-4187 or On Twitter: @netopjr