Changemaker: Alumna helps keep mariachi alive in Denver
Through her nonprofit, Isahar Mendez-Flores is teaching the next generation of performers to love this traditional Mexican music.
Several competing theories exist about the origins of the word “mariachi,” the traditional Mexican genre of music dating to the 18th century. But for Isahar Mendez-Flores, it’s not the origin of the music that matters but ensuring that its tradition lives on with local Colorado youth. As co-founder and director of the Colorado Youth Mariachi Program, she’s doing just that.
Prior to launching her nonprofit, Mendez-Flores co-founded another mariachi program, the Mariachi Los Correcaminos (Mariachi Roadrunners) ensemble at Metropolitan State University of Denver, a student-led group that has flourished and now offers credit to participating students. Her work extended beyond the University, however, and into the surrounding Denver communities, where she has been instrumental in helping several youth mariachi programs get off the ground.
“I wanted to create a program that I wish had existed in my childhood,” she said. “Mariachi is built into the school curriculum in Texas and Arizona, but Colorado was lacking that exposure.”
Mendez-Flores began her journey with music while attending Adams City High School, starting with the violin. “I was a low-income student in a district with a large Mexican population,” she said. “They would cram as many students as possible into a classroom with the goal of simply getting us through high school. Music was an added benefit that helped keep kids in class.”
It was exposure to mariachi that grabbed her attention, however, and led Mendez-Flores to choose a Music major at MSU Denver. While there, Mendez-Flores sent an email to the department’s suggestion box, advocating for mariachi education. “It was pure luck that the head of music said yes,” she said. “I was given the opportunity to organize the group, building a mariachi program from scratch. I had to learn new skills on the spot, including budgeting.”
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As Mendez-Flores approached graduation in 2016, she and her now-husband Victor Becerra founded a program (which received its nonprofit status in 2018) to inspire and educate youth in the music and culture of mariachi. What started with about a dozen students in their back yard has evolved to include 52 children and young adults, ranging from ages 7 to 23. The students meet at least once a week for music lessons, whether individually or in groups. As their skills progress, they work up to the program’s fourth level, which includes advanced rehearsals for local performances.
One of the program’s overarching goals is to stay affordable. Due to the cost, which can include instruments, lessons and uniforms, participating in music programs is often out of reach for lower-income populations. “We understand that music can be expensive and even a luxury,” said Mendez-Flores. “Lessons can cost up to $90 an hour. We try to keep the program at a rate of $50 per month.”
Through the program, instrument rentals — which include trumpets, violins and specific mariachi instruments such as the vihuela and guitarron — run participants just $5 each month. The organization counts on fundraising campaigns and grants from local organizations to stay afloat and affordable. In return, it provides free performances around metro Denver, benefiting the students and the community at large.
Mendez-Flores’ contributions have not gone unnoticed. MSU Denver recently named her one of its 2023 Alumni Association Award Winners in the “10 Under 10” category, which honors Roadrunners who graduated within the past 10 years. It serves as a testament to her hard work and dedication.
To stay up to date with their own skill sets, Mendez-Flores and Becerra attend an annual mariachi workshop in New Mexico. It provides them with networking, education and tools to continue fundraising and expanding their programs.
“There are many excuses for not leading mariachi programs for youth, but teachers need to advocate for it,” Mendez-Flores said. “Beyond startup money, it doesn’t require all that much. But the overall result from creating a sustainable group is well worth it. We as teachers need to advocate for brown kids to be represented in music curriculum.”
Learn more about the Colorado Youth Mariachi Program during its end-of-the-year fundraiser show, La Herencia del Mariachi, on Dec. 9 at Northfield High School in Denver.