Roots: The Beauty of Mariachi
National Hispanic Heritage Month is observed from September 15 – October 15 every year. The Latin American countries Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Costa Rica celebrate their independence from Spain on September 15, and shortly after, Mexico and Chile celebrate their independence days on September 16 and 18. This blog post is part of a series highlighting Latino and Hispanic Cooke Scholars and how they stay connected to their heritage while pursuing their college degrees.
For Francisco (Frank) Garcia, life in New York City as a freshman at Columbia University couldn’t be more different than life in his hometown of Roma, Texas – a border town about five miles away from the Mexico-United States border. In the 2020 census, more than 98% of Roma’s population was Hispanic or Latino. Now, at Columbia, it’s difficult for Frank to even find someone else who speaks Spanish.
“Singing has helped me a lot emotionally and it also helps me to know that I’m embracing my Hispanic culture and demonstrating being different,” Frank said. “It’s always been something that has helped me feel comfortable in the skin I am in.”
Frank, a 2022 Cooke College Scholar, has been singing since he was seven years old. He loves to sing ballads by artists like Adele and Bruno Mars, but his true love is mariachi music – a centuries-old genre of Mexican music that is usually performed by a band of several string instruments and singers that take turns singing lead and backup.
“I love performing. Ever since I was little, I loved to be on stage,” said Frank. “Once I’m on that stage, I’m like a different person – I don’t feel shy, I feel like I’m, like, Frank – you know?”
Mariachi music was popular in his hometown, but in most other parts of the country, it isn’t widely celebrated in Frank’s experience.
“My goal, coming to college, is that I want to promote this type of music,” Frank said. “I want to embrace it and share it with other people from different cultures so they can see how beautiful it is because it’s not very well-seen.”
There isn’t currently a mariachi program at Columbia, but Frank hopes to start one once he gets his footing in class. He’s currently double majoring in architecture and music performance, with minors in business administration and architectural engineering. As a student at Roma High School, he was part of one of the top mariachi programs in the country – an intense commitment for a high school student.
To prepare for competitions, students in the program were required to practice their instruments together several days a week after school, sometimes until late at night. They were expected to practice vocals on their own time. Frank typically performs on the violin, but he also plays guitar, ukulele, and piano.
“The talent that it takes to do mariachi music is not just singing,” Frank said. “It’s also playing an instrument. My director, he would always tell me, you can be really good at singing, but if you’re not good at the violin, you’re not going to do well in mariachi. Even though it’s harsh, it’s the honest truth.”
The Roma High School mariachi program was even featured on the Kelly Clarkson Show in 2020 after a video of the band performing virtually from home during the pandemic went viral. However, this was not Frank’s first time being on television – in 2018, he also made it to the final fifteen in Tengo Talento Mucho Talento, a Spanish-language talent show similar to America’s Got Talent. His ultimate musical dream is to be on The Voice.
“Mariachi music has always been a part of who I am, a part of my culture,” Frank said. “My grandparents love the music, my parents love the music, and so I started to advocate for the spread of this music because of how different and how beautiful it is.”
Frank feels passionately about being himself and displaying his heritage, even when it makes him stand out like he feels it does at Columbia.
“I believe you should embrace your differences,” Frank said. “Because in the end, that’s what makes you unique and makes you beautiful in your own way.”
The Cooke College Scholarship application is currently open and is due at midnight on November 17, 2022 in your local time zone. Find out more here.