WENATCHEE, Wash. (AP) – By the end of a recent weekend, the big achievement among Ramon Rivera's high school mariachi band wasn't that they had logged more than 700 miles in a bus packed with musical instruments or that they had played two shows in front of large audiences.
It was that eight of them, all sons and daughters of Latino farmworkers from the agricultural city of Wenatchee, had been accepted into Washington State University — the first in their families to gain admission to college.
"They could be the next lawyers, senators, doctors, and the next president of the United States," Rivera told a cheering theater crowd that weekend during one of their shows.
The news was one of the success stories from the Wenatchee High School, where officials created a mariachi program to connect children of farmworkers in the heart of Washington state's apple country with their heritage.
School officials say the class has helped students center themselves and has even helped graduation rates.
It's not just for farmworker kids, however. Everyone's invited and some non-Latino kids have joined.
"Mariachi is a leadership class for our students because it teaches them self-discipline, teaches them to work hard, teaches them how to be on time, teaches them to speak in front of an audience," Rivera said.
"These are skills that can't be put down on a test," said Rivera, who moved to Wenatchee from the Los Angeles area in 2006 to take over the program, and reinforced the program's focus on higher education.
Wenatchee, located in north central Washington state, is built on agriculture, sending millions of apples, cherries and pears worldwide. Many of the fruits are picked by immigrant farmworkers from Mexico and Central America. Some of their children work summers in the fields.
To connect with them, the school district created the program using Mexico's mariachi music in 1997. The program is dubbed "Mariachi Huenachi" for the Spanish phonetic spelling of Wenatchee.
Now more than 300 students in the high school and middle school learn the soulful ballads.
Over 45 percent of students at the Wenatchee school district are Latino; 20 percent are migrant students. Nearly 60 percent of students are on free or reduced meal programs, an indicator of poverty, according to state figures.
Rivera is fully aware of those economic realities. "I think the best key to get out of poverty is to get your education. The best way to help your family is to get your education," he said.
To reach his students, Rivera approaches his task from various angles. First, he requires a 3.0 GPA to play.
To perform with the traveling group, students must try out. Students in the top group are well versed in playing the violin, guitar, trumpet and the "guitarron" — a large six-string guitar used by mariachis. Some students also must sing.
He keeps his students busy, filling in many weekends with performances across the state. One weekend it's a gig at the Sounders game in Seattle. Another weekend is a show at a Tacoma theater or at the state capital for Gov. Jay Inslee.
The students also play at senior centers around their town.
They log their activities, and use them to pad their college, scholarship and job applications.
But for the 25-member traveling class, which is the varsity group of the whole program and usually for juniors and seniors, those trips are important beyond the chance to sing in front different audiences.
Along with shows, Rivera tries to schedule visits to universities and community colleges — that way students whose families don't have the means to go on college tours, get to visit a campus.
At the colleges, counselors meet with the students to inform them about scholarships and loans.
"If I was at home, I wouldn't be able to. My family can't drive six, four hours away from home because I want to go to college. That's not possible for me. We have to take care of six other kids," student Yajara Ramírez said.
Rivera's efforts have been lauded by the University of Washington, giving his program a certificate of recognition last year. The eight students accepted at Washington State University were given certificates in a ceremony in November.
Since then, another student has been accepted into college this school year.
"It's our responsibility as educators and as a teacher to show outside Wenatchee, show outside what's at the high school, show them every single thing that's possible out there," he said.
"This is the United States. Everyone has a possibility," he added.