Excitement built in the University of Georgia’s Performing Arts Center as nearly 875 students from 10 local schools filed into their seats. Then, when the musicians from Mariachi Sol de México de José Hernández took the stage, the children erupted in applause.
Mariachi del Sol, a Grammy-nominated ensemble, performed on Nov. 1 to commemorate Día de los Muertos, a holiday celebrated by many people of Mexican heritage in which they honor deceased family members.
The ensemble led a lively performance and encouraged the students in the audience to sing along, dance and let out a grito—a celebratory shout—when the music moved them. In turn, the students, many of whom came from Clarke County schools like J.J. Harris Elementary, Whitehead Road Elementary and Burney-Harris-Lyons Middle, proved to be an engaged and enthusiastic audience.
“Exposure to these kinds of experiences is such an important part of a child’s educational journey and we are incredibly thankful to both UGA and the other sponsors of this initiative for providing this opportunity for our students,” said Clarke County School District Superintendent Robbie Hooker. “This performance is something these young people will remember for a lifetime.”
While providing students with a fun opportunity to connect with mariachi music, the event also offered moments of cultural education.
“Our school has a large Hispanic population, so they were particularly excited to see a performance where they know of the musicians,” said Sara Parrish, a music teacher at Fowler Drive Elementary School. “They’ve heard of them and listened to them on the radio with their parents.”
During the event, Mariachi Sol de México played music from across Mexico and spoke about the country’s regional differences. In fact, one of the songs—a polka—was inspired by northern Mexico’s Germanic immigrants. Because the performance took place on Nov. 1, which is Día de los Meurtos, the band took time to teach the students about the holiday’s significance. Unlike the spooky celebration on Halloween, they noted that Día de los Muertos encourages families to pause and find meaningful ways to remember loved ones who have passed.
“It was really fun,” said Jessie Salas a seventh grade student at Hilsman Middle School. “I have seen a mariachi band perform once before at a birthday party, and I like the sound. It’s really cool.”
The concert was part of the Piedmont Athens Regional Performances for Young People series, which will provide seven opportunities for local school groups to see musical groups during the 2023-2024 school year. Events in the series include performances from the Ballet Hispánico in September, the Dance Theatre of Harlem in January, and the Dervish Irish musicians in March. Each performance is held at 10 a.m. on a weekday, and the musicians will perform for about 45 minutes and allow for about 15 minutes of educational content or a question-and-answer session.
“With this series, we feel like we are not just influencing the next generation of performers but also instilling a love of the arts into the next generation of audience members,” said Miranda Wilson Brown, the Performing Arts Center’s patron services manager and educational outreach coordinator. “It’s my favorite part of my job, because some of these kids have never been to a concert hall. Because of this program, they get to experience world class performances in a world class concert hall right here in Athens.”
The Performing Arts Center works with sponsors, including Piedmont Athens Regional, AthFest Educates, Pinnacle Bank and UGA donors, to offer financial aid to Clarke County schools. The schools can apply for ticket assistance and limited funds to pay for transportation to the performances.
“We love getting to take students to the Young Artists Performances,” Parrish said. “Students don’t get to go with their families to concerts like this, and it’s great to get to experience things outside of everyday life.”