Click below to listen to interview recording
Interviewee: Ramon Rivera
Interviewer: Dulce Gutierrez Vasquez
Interview Date: June, 27th 2022
Summary: Ramon Rivera was born on March 22nd, 1977 in San Francisco, California and comes from a family of mariachi players. Rivera taught in Oxnard, California for five years before the nationwide search for a mariachi director position in Wenatchee contacted him. Prior to Rivera’s arrival in 2005, the mariachi program was established by Mark Fogelquist and Juan Manuel Cortez. Upon being hired, Rivera taught the beginner and advanced mariachi classes at Pioneer Middle school and eventually Wenatchee High School from 2005 to 2019. As an outsider from California, Rivera had to work to build community and gain trust through the mariachi program.
Rivera gained several accolades for his work as the director of the mariachi program including the 2015 White House Bright Spot in Hispanic Education Award. The program has also been featured in national news on Despierta America and Primer Impacto.
Rivera explains that the mariachi program benefited students to achieve something more than agricultural work and reduced the drop out rate of mariachi students by exposing them to new opportunities and taking them to different university campuses. He expands on the importance of students to have a cultural connection to songs that are over a 100 years old while also playing contemporary music. He explains that mariachi music was traditionally passed down within families and the public school program keeps the music alive while connecting students to their roots and their families while also building a bridge for immigrant students from Mexico.
The mariachi program was established in the 2000s and was taught by Mark Fogelquist for a decade, Juan Manuel Cortez, Ramon Rivera, and his successor and former student Eduardo “Eddie” Cortes Solorio. Rivera reflects on how the program has shifted from focusing on winning competitions to teaching students to become community leaders. During his tenure, mariachi students have meet the Speaker of the House.
Rivera has helped established mariachi programs across the United States in Santa Maria, CA, Palm Springs, Denver, CO, and Mount Vernon, WA.
1 The Wenatchee LULAC chapter dissolved and became CAFÉ, the Community for the Advancement of Family Education.
2 Year not confirmed
Interview Transcript Below
GV= Gutierrez Vasquez, RR=Ramon Rivera
GV: So the date is Monday July 27th, 2022. My name is Dulce Gutierrez Vasquez. I am the interviewer with the Wenatchee Valley Museum and Cultural Center for the Diversity and Local History Collecting Latinos Community Stories Project. I am here today with Ramon Rivera. Ramon can you please tell me your name, date of birth, and place you were born?
RR: My name is Ramon Rivera and I was born on March 22nd 1977 and I was born in San Francisco CA.
GV: Thank you. Ramon what has your path in the Valley been like since your family arrived?
RR: Well I was teaching in California and I taught five years in Oxnard CA. In Oxnard we had sort of the same kind of community where it was about-I taught a lot of kids that worked in the migrant fields and Oxnard which are the strawberries and the cherries I mean the celery and those kind of industries in Oxnard. They were looking for a teacher in 2005, and they did a nationwide search and they gave me a call and said, “Hey would you like to come up to Wenatchee and teach mariachi?”. I had never been-I’ve been to Seattle one time but I had never been to Wenatchee. They told me it was close to Seattle and that part wasn’t true, but it was just fun to come through the journey up here. My wife and I just got married one year [before] in 2004 and we were like, “Ok, let’s give this a try”. The cost of living in California is pretty high and so we thought we were young and that would be a good change for us, so we took a risk. We packed everything in our-well when I first came for the interview I went on the big plane from LA to Seattle and then I took this little, tiny 30 passenger plane, that was that was the plane back then it was you know just a small plane. I said, “Where am I going in a plane with propellers on it? What the heck is that?”. And so it was just interesting to go to a town that really needed a Mariachi teacher in a program that was already established by some great teachers Mark Fogelquist and Juan Manuel Cortez. But what was great was that they gave me an opportunity to teach there, and packing up everything I own, and moving across country from Camarillo, CA or Oxnard area, Ventura County to Wenatchee was an experience in itself. It took like you know three days and pack everything you own and just try something new. So that’s when I started in 2005 and I taught at Pioneer Middle School and then I taught at the high school. So I took the beginner and advanced mariachi and I was there from 2005 to 2019.
GV: The move from California to Washington even though there’s similarities there’s a lot of differences too. What was that like arriving and settling in the valley for you?
RR: Well I’m going from a bigger city to a smaller town was really interesting, and how there was like no traffic, and everyone seemed to know everyone. I liked it better than living in a big town. It was interesting. The cost of living was so much less. The electricity bill is like, ‘cause you have that public electricity that you don’t have there and everything the cost of living was so much less which was nice that we were able to save some money that way. It was also nice that the rent wasn’t as high as it was in California, and I think the whole culture was different. I taught in in Oxnard and I taught with a lot of kids that were migrant kids and it was so great that I got to work with these kids that do apples, cherries, and pears. I think it was a good move for our family since the cost of living in California if you look right now it’s like you know $7.00 or $8 the gallon and the same apartment I rent today it is like $2000 to live there. I’ve just seen how the community has grown and just to be part of that for the last 15 years was fun and adventure and just taking my family. Then what was interesting later on we were able to bring my mother and father-in-law they moved to Wenatchee from California and my sister-in-law moved and her two kids moved. There’s a big exodus right and California just because the cost of living they still live in Wenatchee so it’s really great that our family were able to resettle in Wenatchee. I’m very fortunate they gave us this opportunity.
GV: That’s wonderful that your family was able to come up here and for you guys to be together. In your early years here how did you go about building community for yourself and for your family?
RR: Well I think it was difficult just because everyone is a tight knit group and everybody knows everything and I was an outsider and I didn’t know anybody. I had no friends. I had nobody to go to and the district was very helpful in helping me move and finding a place to live. I lived in those apartments by Washington Park, those little townhomes. Finding a place for us to settle and the hardest thing was I think was just getting to know the community and the minute I got there, two weeks later they were playing for the Fiestas Mexicanas that they have at Lincoln Park. So there was like no time to waste and we moved during Labor Day. School just started right when I got there and we moved and we just started with everything and so I think it was just getting that trust from the community which took some time because you know I’m an outsider from California and I wasn’t raised in the Valley so I think it took a lot of community building. But in time everything worked out and I think when I left um two years ago, I think I left the place where people felt the Mariachi Program was part of the community and something to be proud of.
GV: Definitely. When I was doing some research for this project I saw that you and the program have received a lot of local and national attention including in 2015 the White House recognized you with the Bright Spot in Hispanic Education Award.
RR: Yes, yes.
GV: What has that been like for you?
RR: Well you know what? I always just tell everyone I’m just a public-school teacher you know? I don’t think I’m Superman or anything like that. I just think that one of the things that I brought, one of my goals was to put Wenatchee on the map and putting Wenatchee on the map was to make this a nationally recognized program. So, with the start of getting-the big problem was a lot of these kids that I worked with would not finish high school or not go to higher education or not go to besides picking the fields and working in the fields because that cycle just kept continuing. So, one of the things that I wanted to improve was the dropout rate with our mariachi kids, and also improve on their academics and prove that college is possible. You know as a lot of them are first generation students. They’ve never had the opportunity to actually go visit a college and go do that. They had the AVID program but not everyone was part of that and got to go see it. I tried to take those students to every university possible; every single college possible. Also, we started a scholarship fund and we gave thousands, I mean thousands, of dollars and changed kid’s lives. So, what one of my goals is-yeah we’re great and we play great musicians but we have to make them all around students, you know make them leaders. I make them believe in themselves you know? I really think that my time in Wenatchee, we have students nowadays that are doctors and teachers and lawyers and professionals in the field and because we gave them that leg up and because we were able to give them a scholarship or just literally just believing in them you know, just believing that they could do it. A lot of kids don’t have anybody at home that believes in them and a lot of our parents that we work with only have a second or third grade education and all they know is to work in the fields. So we live in United States of America and we have the best colleges and universities and tons of opportunities we just, I think our students don’t have a set of parents to go, “Ok this Spring Break we’re going to visit colleges. We’re gonna split on the weekend. We’re gonna visit at the University of Washington.” It doesn’t happen. I think my job as an educator is to make sure that there’s an even playing field for our kids. It shouldn’t matter. When you’re an educator you teach everybody who walks through that door-migrant, poor, rich, Latino, and disabled-whatever you have and show them that this is the United States of America. We could find opportunities for you. I use that through Mariachi and I use that through music. So, we got a lot of notoriety. You probably went to my YouTube channel and looked at a whole bunch of stuff, but you know they were featured on Despierta América, Primer Impacto, and they got these national stories. I mean remember Primer Impacto, there’s 2.1 million people that watch it every night and Despierta América is the biggest, and then also on King5 and they had a documentary made about them. You know that TVW was gonna do a small story about the group and then they found out all the wonderful things that they’re doing and it’s like, “No we need to do a half an hour documentary about it.” I think we were Trail Blazers. I think a lot of mariachi programs, all they care about is being a great musician. That’s great, but I think we need to get these students to be leaders and give back to their community. I think we accomplished a lot of that. One of my first students she’s a doctor now in Sea Mar. We taught her to be a leader and now she’s giving back to her community. So I think we really changed kid’s lives by having this mariachi and folklórico program and I’m just so proud of the work that we did with these kids. For the 15 years that I was there at Wenatchee I think it really put us on the map and people recognized our program not just as great musicians, but as leaders and as role models. ‘Cause I think we need a lot of our own role models. I mean we have a lot of role models like Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta and Frida Kahlo and all those things are great. They’re great but students need to see role models from their community, from their neighborhood who have made it. It’s like Michael Jordan, yes he’s the best basketball player ever, but it’s good to see someone from their own neighborhood that’s at the University of Washington or Eastern or Central or WSU or you know whatever college they go to being successful in their career and being good role models. It’s what we need for our kids right now especially everything that they go through as a migrant student, or Latino student. They already have two strikes against them sometimes that they think that they’re not from a rich family and they cannot make it. They can’t go to school. They can’t become a professional. I could just work in the fields like my family. I think we changed their view and showed them what it is to be a leader. I try to model that as much as I can, but also bring in professionals to see that. Also, when they got accepted to university or got a scholarship it was like winning the lottery to these students that someone believes in them. It’s all heart. The secret of teaching is loving and caring. They need people, educators, to show them loving and caring, and kids will do anything. We’ll move mountains for these kids so that they could have these opportunities, because it is an unfair playing field for some of these students. But any way I could clear the road and make it easier and using my connections you know. When they’re when they’re on Univision and millions of people are watching them or on King Five or on the web or on Fox News I mean they were everywhere. So it was great to bring Wenatchee a small town, and to recognize these students.
GV: Definitely. I think that it’s very telling in how you provided overall support to these students by seeing that the graduation rate for mariachi students is at 100% which I thought was incredibly impressive. I think for the district it’s somewhere near 85 to 90%.
RR: Yeah, well if you have high standards, they will reach it. It’s just a lot of people don’t give the students those high standards. They say, “Oh no that student can’t make it” or they give up. We didn’t. We found the help that they needed or the guidance, or someone just to believe in them. If they told me 80%, “Alright let’s go to 100.” Why not? Let’s get them to colleges and universities and all those wonderful things. I’m proud of the work that the students accomplished and the educators had helped.
GV: Yes, definitely. It really takes a village. Obviously the passing and teaching of mariachi and folklórico and all of that is passing down traditional aspects and values from culture. What about doing that was important to you?
RR: Well I think the music is-they are playing songs that are over 100 years old. Some of the songs of Pedro Infante and Javier Solís and keeping our traditional music. What’s really cool was that these students played Bruno Mars, Kendrick Lamar, and Mariachi, and Vicente Fernández. They still keep to their roots and that’s what’s what we wanted to do is to keep this artform alive. If we don’t teach that this to our younger generation, mariachi will die. I think it’s my job as an educator to keep this artform alive, mariachi, folklórico because this is the kind of music where everybody could come. When we have a mariachi concert grandma could come, the five-year-old could come, the 10-year-old could come, the teenager. It’s a whole family affair. A lot of music is not family music anymore.
RR: It’s like Bad Bunny, and only the young people could go to see Bad Bunny. Grandma doesn’t want to see Bad Bunny, but if you bring Vicente Fernández everybody will see them. If we play these songs by Juan Gabriel, Pedro Infante, Mariachi Vargas and just play this music and keep this artform alive like Son de la Negra (that’s our second national anthem of Mexico). First is our national anthem, but the second one is El Son de la Negra because it’s used forever. That song, it gets people excited when they hear it. They either begin and every mariachi concert ends with that song. Everybody just has the joy when they hear this music and it’s happy music, it’s family music, it’s something that brings the family together and the tradition. That’s why they have mariachis come for their fiestas, and their celebrations, and their quinceañeras and it’s just all family. And because we’re able to teach this one of the things is, some of the students by coming to United States lose some of their culture. With this they could keep it. Like one of the things that I had to teach the students every year was all the words to Las Mañanitas ’cause they didn’t know it. They didn’t know the words to Las Mañanitas. They knew the first verse, but I told them, “I’m getting old. You have to keep this song alive. You know, Son de la Negra. You’ve gotta learn the words to Son de la Negra. You gotta teach the younger generation this music so that you could keep it alive forever, ’cause it’d be a shame to see mariachi music die and not continue. By teaching it in the public schools this keeps this music alive.
RR: Mariachi music was usually passed down by family. Like you are part of the Vasquez family and the dad would teach the son, and the son would teach his son, and that’s how it was taught. If you were not part of the Vasquez family you never learned mariachi music. Now that it’s taught in the public schools and it’s taught with sheet music, the music stays alive because anybody can learn mariachi music. So when we see this in hundreds of kids or thousands of kids that I taught in 15 years, they were able to keep this music alive and still play it; still play it and share this with their family. One of the things that I hear a lot is, “This is my grandma’s favorite song. This is my grandpa’s favorite song. This is my mom’s favorite song. My mom listens to this when she cleans. My mom listens to this when she washes the car. I love this song. I never knew the name of the song, she played it all the time, and I always wanted to know what the name of it is. So that’s the family connection that this money this brings that orchestra, or band, or choir, you know I don’t think that has that same natural family connection. They also use this at the school as a way of connecting with newcomers, students that just came from Mexico and have no connection to US culture. This is a way of them connecting to school, and I’ve seen that with our lot of our newcomer students that migrate from Mexico. They come and see, “Wow I’m part of, they have mariachi programs here?” In Mexico they have mariachi programs but not as big as the United states. United States has humongous mariachi programs-Las Vegas, Texas, and all over the United States. I was just very fortunate that Wenatchee supported the program, and got them uniforms, and instruments because it was good for kids. At the end of the day it’s what’s good for kids and mariachi music is good for kids, and good for the community, and good for the families. The biggest problem they had was connecting Latino families to the school, because it’s hard. They don’t speak the language. They don’t understand what’s going on. All the documents that you get from the school are in fancy writing and stuff so I think it’s a good thing that we have these programs.
GV: Oh definitely. You said that the program was already established when you joined the Wenatchee School District. Do you know what year it was established?
RR; In the 2000s. That’s what I remember. I remember there was a teacher named Mark Fogelquist, you probably heard his name before. He taught the program for I think 10 years and then Mr. Cortez came, and he taught it for I think a couple years. And then it was me. Now it’s Eddie Cortez who was one of my former students who is now directing the group, and he’s running the program. It’s just awesome to see that. Let’s say the program is over 30 years old and it’s still going strong and kids are still learning music. I saw that they had their festival back this year and so it’s just good to see that.
GV: Yes. During the 15 years that you were here as a part of that program, did you see how the community reception of it changed?
RR: Yes. In the in the beginning, I think that they thought-I mean it was an established program, and I think I changed the at the outcome of it. It used to be about winning competitions, and going to Albuquerque, and doing that. That isn’t my thing. I don’t really teach for the trophy. I teach for getting kids to be leaders and I think once the kids, once the community, saw that it was a leadership program they got more involved in it. I was trying to keep kids from dropping out of school. I’m trying to keep kids to not join the gang. I’m trying to keep kids to be leaders in the community and good citizens. In Wenatchee we were able to do that by adding the mariachi part to it. People will always, always support programs that uplift kids, that get them out of wherever they’re at. The biggest barrier a lot of our students face is poverty. The only way to get out of poverty is to get an education, to learn a skill, to become a leader, and also being a professional. So I think with that the community got involved. When I took them to Washington DC, I didn’t have any money for that trip, but the community gave. They got to play, it was about $30,000-$40,000 to do that whole trip but the community gave. When I started asking the community, I said, “You know these students are gonna be representing us and performing in front of Congress and performing for the Speaker of the House.” They gave. Republicans, Democrats, independents, whoever. They gave it because it was for the kids, and I thought it was just a big thing for us to go play at the White House and go play in front of Congress, and play for speaker Ryan who never met a farmworker kid before. So that was my biggest thing, because you know going there is political. I’m not here to-I just want them to see. Go to the Speaker’s office and have mariachi just play and to be at the United States Congress, I thought that was just something big, huge for our town and our community. It takes a village like you said.
GV: That’s also something that they’re never gonna forget and tell their own kids about.
RR: Yeah. To meet the speaker of the house, they have a picture and you’ve probably seen it. They have a picture of them with the Speaker of the House and you know that’s huge. We had to go there complete with the community donating the money for us to go. That means a lot to our community to our students that they care.
GV: Thank you. So you’ve been helping pass down traditions for other people. For your own family, what traditional aspects or values did you find important to pass down?
RR: I come from a family of mariachi. My mom’s a mariachi, my sister, my brothers and they all play mariachi. I’m honored to continue spreading this culture not just to my family but also to the community and to my students. Now one of the things I do is I help mariachi programs around the United states get started. You could look at my Facebook or my website and you could see all the different programs I helped this year alone. I helped start a program in Santa Maria, CA, Palm Springs, CA. I’m going to Denver in a couple weeks to help them start a program. So now it’s not just helping Wenatchee. I’m helping teachers across the United States replicate what we did in Wenatchee, replicate how we could reach out to kids, and empower kids, and change kid’s lives through mariachi. I’m just really honored to continue this and help people outside Wenatchee, help people outside Washington State, nationwide learn how to do this. More kids need mariachi. More kids need opportunities to feel connected to school, and I think this is the perfect way to connect kids by giving them more art, by giving them more music, by giving them opportunities to express their culture. It’s just a really beautiful thing.
GV: You’ve done a lot to shape that here and it’s wonderful that you’re doing that in other places as well. I know that you left for an opportunity in Mount Vernon, but do you have any goals or hopes for the community in Wenatchee in the future?
RR: I just want them to keep on going. I wish them the best, and I know they’re gonna do it. I think I built a good foundation there and built a strong program and I know that the District will continue to support students and continue to support because it’s a big part of our program. The Mariachi Director in our community is someone very important and a big ambassador for the Latino community. You become the ambassador for the Latino community when you’re the Mariachi Teacher because it’s something very sacred. Mariachi music is sacred. This is something very, very special. I’m glad that it will continue. It will continue to grow and I know this community will-nothing will ever happen to our mariachi program because there’s something special that we have in Wenatchee. I just want it to grow and now I get to do some magic over here in Mount Vernon and start to plant the seed and watch it grow. I think I’m young enough to do it one more time. I think that it’s necessary. We need to make sure that it’s supported by the community and that these students have this opportunity to continue the foundation that I helped build, that I had a small part of it.
GV: It’s definitely one of the pillars of Wenatchee at this point.
RR: Thank you.
GV: What about for your personal goals? Do you have any for the future?
RR: My goal is to help teachers around the country now replicate what we did in Wenatchee. Help them learn about mariachi, learn how to teach it. So all the years I spent teaching the methodology of mariachi, I’m using it to teach this future generation of teachers how to do that. And then my goal is also to put Mount Vernon on the map like I did Wenatchee, just always promoting mariachi music. They need it in the West Side. The West Side of the state didn’t have the program. So it was a great opportunity for us to try this market over here which is great. There’s from Skagit, Everett, Bellingham, Seattle needed a program that they had in Wenatchee. Now they’re very grateful for me being here, and I’m actually expanding my teaching which is really cool. I’m teaching this semester coming up two folklórico classes: beginner and advanced. I’m teaching a Chicano Theatre class. That’s gonna be awesome, and then I’m gonna be teaching two mariachi classes. and we have a program called Latinos In Action where they do community service while we work with kids that go out and read books to kids. I was able to take all the skills that I learned in Wenatchee and expand it, and now I’m able to teach all art. I’m now teaching theater, I’m teaching dance, teaching mariachi, and then I’m teaching Latino leadership with the Latinos In Action program. I think after all these years of teaching, 22 years of teaching, I was able to find a good mix of everything and a bigger net to reach kids.
GV: That’s wonderful. What is something that you would like the community and the Wenatchee area to know about the Latinos who live here?
RR: That they all have potential. That they all could be leaders and they could all go to college like they’re all smart. I think a lot of times we get stereotyped because of the gangs and things on the news and the media and I just think that they’re kids. They just don’t have the same opportunity as more fluent kids. We need to give every student who walks through that door in Wenatchee the opportunity to be successful. Show them loving and caring and if you show a kid that you care they will I will run marathons for you. The more that we show that we care about the music, we care about the culture, we care about the student, we could change lives in Wenatchee. We already have the foundation we just have to keep it going, maintaining it. I just hope that they continue this program and they continue working hard to find new opportunities for our students. By giving a kid a scholarship, we have a big scholarship fund, by giving a kid an instrument, by giving a kid a folklórico dress, you could change a kid’s life in a positive way. If not, if you don’t have the positive outlets they’ll find a negative outlet. We have to have more positive outlets for our kids and mariachi is one of the best ways to do that.
GV: Thank you. I feel like that’s a beautiful message to end this on. I want to thank you for your time today for the work that you have done and continue to do the Latino community.
RR: Thank you. Thank you. You wanted some artifact or something right? Or you just want a picture or what would you…
GV: Let me pause it recording real quick.
[End of Interview]
Interview length: 35:14
Transcribed by: Dulce Gutierrez Vasquez on June 29th, 2022