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What is the best way to increase college acceptance rates at a high school where half the students live in poverty? Teach them to play Mariachi music.

Wenatchee High School, a low-slung brick building framed by the toothy spires of Saddle Rock, is one of the largest high schools in the state. Deep in “apple country,” 40 percent of students here are Hispanic. Fifty percent qualify for free or reduced-cost lunches — a standard measure of poverty in public schools.

“Their parents don’t always have what they need. Some of them don’t have a computer or access to a computer,” says Ramon Rivera, director of “Mariachi Huenachi,” a program at Wenatchee High School that teaches students (many with parents originally from Mexico) to play a type of traditional Mexican folk music.

It might be hard to understand how a music class can help students do better in school, especially when so many are struggling to get their basic needs met. But Mariachi Huenachi is more than just a music program, something that becomes evident as soon as you watch one of the daily rehearsals.

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At first glance, the painted cinder-block classroom looks like any chaotic high-school scene: Students gossip in clusters and shout at each other from across the room. But once the trumpets start blaring, and strumming on the tiny vihuela

guitar begins

, it’s pure performance.

I watched in awe as a 15-year-old

boy belted out a ranchera

in a voice so deep and sure — so full of bravado — I couldn’t believe it was coming from a teenager.

And he was in the intermediate group. The program (numbering 100 students in all) has beginning and intermediate musicians all vying for one of the 25 slots in Mariachi Huenachi — the students that perform around the region and don “the blue suit,” a reverent term for the traditional silver-embroidered outfit issued only to the most advanced mariachis.

Despite the high-quality music these students are trained to produce, Rivera is quick to explain that the power of Mariachi Huenachi is in teaching life skills such as discipline, leadership and confidence.

“We teach them that you have to sell yourself, or someone else will get that job or that slot at the university or that scholarship,” says Rivera, who grew up among musicians in Los Angeles and moved to Eastern Washington to oversee this music program eight years ago. “I want them to have the total package.”

And it’s working. Rivera says college-attendance rates are up and that all 10 seniors in Mariachi Huenachi this year are going on to four-year colleges in the fall.

Bruce Cardenas, 18, is among them, but he wasn’t always sure he was college bound. He says that when he was a freshman, his grades were poor and he was often getting in trouble at school. Rivera’s encouragement helped him turn things around.

“He said, ‘Hey, if you’re going to be in Mariachi you can’t be doing that,’ ” says Cardenas, remembering a talking-to from Rivera. “And I realized that I needed to fix myself if I was going to do anything in my life. That nobody would take me seriously [if I didn’t].”

Cardenas will attend the University of Washington, where he wants to study education and law. He’ll be the first in his family to attend a four-year university.

Cardenas says that cultural pride — his parents are originally from Michoacán, Mexico — has a lot to do with how connected he feels to Mariachi music.

Rivera agrees that Mariachi Huenachi has helped make Mexican culture more visible and celebrated in a school and a region that can feel ethnically segregated. Rivera is particularly proud that the program has recently attracted a few non-Hispanic students: evidence that his beloved Mariachi music is for everyone.

“Now if you think of the Northwest, and you think of what is the capital of Mariachi music, immediately think Wenatchee,” says Rivera. “That’s where the Mariachis are.”

Just look for the blue suits.

Sarah Stuteville is a multimedia journalist and co-founder of The Seattle Globalist,, a blog covering Seattle’s international connections. Sarah Stuteville: Twitter: @SeaStute

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