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Belle Ortiz, the valiant educator who brought mariachi to public schools, has died


Now an appreciation of a Texas educator and musician who played a vital role in bringing mariachi music out of the nightclubs and into public schools as a musical discipline. Belle Ortiz died recently at the age of 90. Texas Public Radio’s Jack Morgan has our story.

JACK MORGAN, BYLINE: When Belle Ortiz became a public school music teacher in San Antonio in the early 1950s, she wanted curriculum to reflect the diverse musical cultures of Texas. But this was an era when simply speaking Spanish in front of white teachers might result in students being disciplined, so the idea of teaching mariachi music was fairly radical.


BELLE ORTIZ: To get this type of music into the high schools and into the elementary schools, they told me no 'cause it was bar music. It was cantina music. And I said, no, it isn't. It's folk music. It's our culture.

MORGAN: Ortiz persisted. And in 1970, Lanier High School allowed her to teach one course. The idea began catching on.

CYNTHIA MUNOZ: It was a very exciting time in San Antonio back in the 1970s.

MORGAN: Cynthia Munoz says Ortiz's class had a profound impact on her. She says teaching young people how to read music and to perform within a group and onstage paid unexpected benefits.

MUNOZ: The music filled my heart, and it was invigorating. It was exciting. It was magical. And I realized for the first time that our culture is more beautiful than I had ever seen before.



MORGAN: Tens of thousands of students now take mariachi courses in Texas schools. In a 2018 interview, Ortiz said her students gained self-confidence, which kept them focused and in school.


ORTIZ: The most beautiful thing that they can tell me is when they say, Mrs. O., you taught us these instruments and that you made sure we were in school, that we had scholarships. I said, no, I didn't give them to you. You earned them.

MORGAN: In the days before her passing last Wednesday, dozens of mariachi groups made up of former students showed up to her bedside to serenade her.

For NPR News, I'm Jack Morgan in San Antonio.


UNIDENTIFIED MUSICAL ARTIST #2: (Singing in Spanish). Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Jack Morgan