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College in South Bay San Diego offers country's first mariachi degree program

The rhythm of mariachi music is instantly recognizable - and not just in Latin America. The iconic music genre also has some roots in San Diego County.

CHULA VISTA, Calif. — Mariachi music is a pillar of Mexican culture. Its rhythm is instantly recognizable and not just in Latin America. The iconic music genre also has some roots in San Diego County where the country’s first mariachi music degree program is offered in Chula Vista.  

Inside a brand-new performing arts center at Southwestern College, students rehearse for their next time on stage. 

"There's something so beautiful about playing it,” said Leonardo Lara who is getting ready to graduate next year with his associate degree in mariachi music. 

"Every time I play, I just feel overwhelmed with joy being able to play it and also being able to play it for people,” he said.  

Playing for people on stages across the world is the dream for many students and one of their teachers has lived that dream.

"I've taken mariachi to Russia and we've performed songs from the 1950s and the audience sings along with us,” said Jeff Nevin, professor of music and director of mariachi activities at Southwestern College. 

Nevin created the degree program which has been around for 20 years.  His band Mariachi Champaña Nevin has played all over and with some big names in the genre. 

"It puts us on the map here in Chula Vista,” Nevin said. “People know that this is one of the centers of mariachi music education across the country. There are probably half a dozen and we're one of them and down in Mexico there may be another four or five.”  

Nevin said it all started around the 1940s as the world fought in World War II, Hollywood and Mexico City became two of the main entertainment hubs. 

"The Americans went all over the world. People translated the movies from the ‘50s into other languages,” said Nevin. “The Mexican movies went all over Latin America - all over Spain.”  

 And then leeched into other parts of Europe translated. 

"And if you're in Germany, what's the difference translating an English movie or a Spanish movie - it's identical, so a lot of those Mexican movie stars that people who grew up in the United States have never heard before are extremely famous,” said Nevin. "So they pulled that in and mariachi was a part of that.”  

Now, decades later, the new versions of those classic stars could come right from Southwestern College in Chula Vista. 

"It's so much fun and you do learn a lot and we have really great teachers here,” said Lara.  

Some of the students at southwestern college have gotten money from the Mariachi Scholarship Foundation where Nevin is also president. 

The foundation guarantees scholarships to high schoolers, college students, and some college graduates going further who have graduated from or taken part in mariachi programs in the San Diego area. 

The foundation will be holding its annual fundraising event and concert called Las Posadas: A Mexican Christmas Celebration on Thursday, Dec. 23 at Balboa Theater. 

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