Embracing your own culture can be a struggle. It can take years, sometimes a lifetime.
Growing up, Carmen Dias did not speak Spanish. She was discouraged by her mother, who was spanked for speaking the language in school when she was a child. Despite growing up in California’s San Joaquin Valley, a region historically populated by Mexican migrants and American Latinos, she knew nothing of her culture.
“I didn’t want to be Mexican, and I didn’t know how to find myself,” she says, thinking back to her childhood in the 1970s, much of which she spent hiding in the library. Lost, withdrawn, and disheartened, she dropped out of school.
Now, almost forty years later, she has become a teacher, and she proudly shares her Mexican heritage to positively impact her students. How did she change her path?
Dias discovered mariachi music—a lively, supercharged emblem of Mexican identity—and in discovering mariachi, she discovered herself. In 1982, she began to play the music professionally as a violinist, choosing a path that would lead her to champion the very culture she had been ashamed of. She eventually finished high school and became the first in her family to graduate college. But in 2017, after a long career in music and as an executive at United Way, something shook her life.
“I was working fifteen-hour days, seven days a week in the Central Valley as director of social services, when I got into a serious car wreck. I felt like God was slapping me in the face, getting my attention and saying, ‘You need to be teaching!’ In that moment, I truly believed I was made for a purpose.”
In transforming her own life, she found the power to transform hundreds of others.
Now in her mid-fifties, Dias teaches music in kindergarten through eighth grade at the Grimmway Academy charter school in tiny Arvin, California, a town nestled in the vineyards and orchards of the San Joaquin Valley. She strives to help children in her community also find their way in the world, using her own story as an example.
“I want kids to believe that if I can do it, everybody can do it,” she insists. “I want them to know that they are important and that anything that they believe in, they can achieve it. I truly believe that.”
At Grimmway, ninety-five percent of students are either Mexican-born or of Mexican ancestry—demographics reflected in the city. Most of their parents are farmworkers and recent immigrants. With so many parents absent, working multiple jobs to make ends meet, and so many families separated by distance and the border, Dias believes that mariachi brings families back together.
“It’s not easy to move away from your home town, leaving your family behind, to go and work to provide for your family,” she understands now, working in the valley. “It’s heart wrenching, but through the music of mariachi, you’re pulling and keeping families together across the borders. So that’s what we’re celebrating here in the United States—is family.”
“Mariachi music is more than just music,” she emphasizes. “Mariachi is intergenerational. This is not something like a fad, that for a few years it’s popular, and then it goes away. Mariachi has been around for over a hundred years. My job is to teach the art of that, so that we can preserve passion in the tradition.”
Today, Dias runs a nonprofit organization called the Mariachi Sun Foundation, with the mission of teaching mariachi music to young people in the valley. Its logo bears grapevines and the rays of the sun, representing their place in the valley and sharing knowledge.
“We are preserving a heritage. We are building through mariachi music the next generation. We are bearing fruit through the vine. That’s why we say mariachi de la viña, because our students are the fruit here in the valley.”
With a focus on discipline first and talent second, the foundation’s program has been a resounding success. In a county where the high school dropout rate is twenty-two percent, one hundred percent of students in the mariachi program since 1998 have not only graduated but gone on to college.
As a teacher, she has become keenly aware of the power of music, as a force in building character, bringing people together, and overcoming oppressive poverty. In the face of deprivation, she asks, “How do you aspire to be great when you don’t know what great is? So that’s what I want to show these kids at Grimmway. There’s something bigger than all of us. So, my job is to present them with that. Open a door, open their eyes, open their minds. And let them believe that they can do anything.”
In overcoming the painful memories of her childhood, Carmen Dias made them empowering—and she continues to empower others through embracing their culture.
Daniel Sheehy is director and curator emeritus of Smithsonian Folkways Recordings. He is also a co-founding musician in Mariachi Los Amigos, the longest existing mariachi ensemble in the Washington, D.C., area.