At a West Valley school, a teacher mentors Utah’s first kids’ mariachi band

Allan Moreno helps kids at Esparanza Elementary connect with their culture and play with the pros.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Allan Moreno works with kids from Esperanza Elementary in West Valley City on Wednesday, March 22, 2023, where he has assembled the first kids' mariachi band in Utah.

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Allan Moreno doesn’t regret the decision he made five years ago to leave his band, La Onda Norteña de Saenz.

“This is the best decision I have made in my life,” Moreno said, confidently.

Five years ago, Moreno became a music teacher at Esperanza Elementary in West Valley City, where he is mentoring Utah’s first kids’ mariachi band.

On a typical weekday evening, the scene at Esperanza Elementary is sonically pleasing. Past the entryway, where painted murals greet students and visitors, and down the hall, one begins to hear rumblings of mariachi staples: Joyful trumpets, majestic violins, flamboyant guitar and powerhouse vocals.

Students have taken over the hallway and two adjacent classroom spaces, their instruments in tow. Instrument cases line the walls, among backpacks and stray sombreros stacked on chairs.

It’s a bit chaotic, made less so by the anchoring presence of Maestro Moreno at the center.

Sometimes he’s standing at the front of the class. Other times, he’s sitting next to students and helping them with their instruments. Other times, he’s at his desk, which is covered in figurines from Pixar’s “Coco” and an award with the inscription to “the best music teacher, Allan Moreno, Gracias Por Todo Tu Trabajo,” and other items.

No matter where he is, when he speaks, all the children stop what they’re doing and listen.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Kamila Moreno, 12, joins fellow students at Esperanza Elementary in West Valley City on Wednesday, March 22, 2023, as they practice ‘El Mariachi Loco,’ during one of their weekday practice sessions.

Opportunities to perform

In his five years at Esperanza, Moreno has created a cultural music program of significance not only in his own community but beyond it. (According to 2021 U.S. Census data, 40% of West Valley City’s population identifies as Hispanic or Latino.)

The 300 kids who are a part of his programs, or classes at his nonprofit Academia Mis Raices that he started two years ago, have created four CDs and performed at the Utah State Capitol during this year’s Utah Legislature session, as well as at Rio Tinto Stadium and Smith’s Ballpark.

Most recently they performed at the red carpet premiere of “Going Varsity in Mariachi” at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival in Park City, and have worked with world-renowned mariachi music producer Fernando de Santiago.

Their song “Mi México Grande,” featuring Cumbre Norteña, was featured on Apple Music’s “Sabor a Mariachi” playlist and in early April they performed for Gov. Spencer Cox.

Moreno has created an extended, intergenerational family. It’s how he fell in love with music growing up in Chihuahua, Mexico.

“My grandfather was a professional musician,” he said. “He gave me a guitar when I was 12 years old. I grew up with him, watching him play guitar and trumpet. My dad played the drums.”

To bring that cultural connection to children in Utah means everything to Moreno.

“I want to show those kids here these songs I grew up with, songs that remind me of Mexico, that people sing in their houses,” he said. “It’s important for me because I don’t want them to grow up and not know where they came from. I don’t want the new generations to forget about mariachi music.”

The history of mariachi music, according to The Smithsonian, reaches back to the 1850s, created from a melding of several cultures in the ranches, farms and small towns of western Mexico.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Lupita Sanchez gives Jared Oliver a few pointers as they practice playing their vihuela’s during music class at Esperanza Elementary in West Valley City on Wednesday, March 22, 2023.

Positive influence

Part of Moreno’s motivation is to keep kids away from guns, drugs, gangs and other negative influences, Moreno said. “I don’t want to make them famous or the best musicians,” he said. “I want to help make good people with guitars and trumpets and teach them they can be whatever they want.”

His classroom has a photo wall with a quote: ‘When you love what you have, you have everything you need.” The words are surrounded by polaroid images of Moreno with his students and their instruments.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) A love for music, specifically mariachi music, is being harnessed at Esperanza Elementary in West Valley City, where instructor Allan Moreno, an ex-musician, doesn’t regret the decision he made five years ago to leave his band La Onda Norteña de Saenz.

“The only way that we can change something right now for the world is [though] kids,” Moreno said. “We need to start working with them to change something for the future,” Moreno said.

Tacked to the bulletin board are handwritten letters from students. One, with its corners curled in, has a big #1 that takes up the majority of the page, colored in with eight different colors, from a child named Anthony. It reads: “I just wanted to give this to you, you are really good at guitar. You help me a lot. … You are a perfeshinol.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Students practice numerous instruments at Esperanza Elementary in West Valley City, the home of the first mariachi band in Utah, on Wednesday, March 22, 2023.

The classroom is packed with chairs, music stands, drums and various stringed instruments hanging off the far back wall. On the projection screen, Moreno displays music sheets he creates on his own from his books. He even creates YouTube tutorials.

In a small closet in the room, a group of girls gathers to learn from a teacher in Mexico City over a Zoom call. Moreno employs 12 teachers overall at his academy, including one based in Spain and three in Mexico City. Classes are taught for the vihuela guitar, bajo quinto, accordion, violin, trumpet, saxophone, guitarrón, bass and vocals.

Esperanza is a K-6 school, but Moreno also teaches community classes. After his students graduate and move to different schools, they come back to work with him. He starts them young - like Sebastian, a second-grader who is learning the accordion. His accordion is blue, covered in stickers of Pokémon characters and other images.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Esperanza Elementary Mariachi Band performs at the Capitol for Charter Day on the Hill, on Monday, Jan. 23, 2023.

Older kids — such as 18-year-old Lupita Sanchez, who attends Hunter High School and plays vihuela — started working with Moreno in 2019. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, she started playing her instrument at home and teaching herself through YouTube videos.

When her mother discovered Moreno’s mariachi group through Facebook, Lupita joined — and, she said, he helped her develop her skills.

“When I was little I wanted to be a musician or singer, but I had no idea [how] to do it,” she said. “Since mariachi came in, I feel very proud of myself because I’m recreating my parent’s music.”

Lupita said that if she had this band as a child, she might not have been as shy as she was growing up.

George Sanchez — no relation to Lupita — is 17 and also goes to Hunter. He’s known Moreno since the fourth grade.

George started on guitar, but now plays the larger guitarrón. He credits Moreno, in part, with helping him make that transition — and said Moreno is a great teacher he can talk to and trust.

“Mariachi means a lot to me, because it’s our culture,” George said, “It’s basically like my teacher Allan says: It’s like carrying a whole nation on your back, because mariachi music isn’t just for Mexicans, it’s for the whole world for people to hear.”

Moreno said parents and family express their gratitude daily for connecting their younger generations with their culture.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Sophia Vega, 9, loves playing her guitar as she pauses for a moment during music class at Esperanza Elementary in West Valley City on Wednesday, March 22, 2023.

‘Something amazing’

The academy is looking for sponsorships and other resources to raise money, since a number of the kids can’t afford to pay for everything. Some of the instruments they own themselves, some are Moreno’s and some are from Esperanza.

The group is aiming to submit some of their work to the upcoming Latin Grammy Awards, but if Moreno can share one parting message with those unfamiliar with him, his kids or mariachi music in general:

“To all the people in Utah: we have the first kids mariachi band, in Utah, and they’re making something amazing. They work so hard,” he said.

“Those kids are making songs with famous people, for the first time, and we have them here in Utah — in West Valley, a city that people think is dangerous,” Moreno added. “If you see those kids someday, you say they’re doing good, because they’re showing other kids that it’s better to do something like this with instruments than to be on their cell phones or doing something on the streets.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Allan Moreno, at right, works with kids from Esperanza Elementary in West Valley City on Wednesday, March 22, 2023, where he has assembled the first kids mariachi band, in Utah.