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Grammys recognize Mariachi Joya director of Las Vegas High School

CCSD educator Stephen Blanco was recognized as a semifinalist for a prestigious Grammy recognition in music education.
Published: Apr. 3, 2022 at 5:10 PM PDT
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LAS VEGAS, Nev. (FOX5) - Music stars such as Lady Gaga, BTS and Billie Eilish are in Las Vegas Sunday for music’s biggest night. The Grammys get underway at the MGM Grand Garden arena starting at 5 o’clock.

But among those being honored by the Grammys this week is a shining star of the Clark County School District: a music educator who is empowering his students to graduate high school on a high note.

“I was really honored to represent Nevada as a semi-finalist this year,” said Stephen Blanco, founding director of the music program Mariachi Joya at Las Vegas High School.

The Grammy Museum, along with Grammys in the Schools (GITS) program, named Blanco as a semifinalist for their prestigious Music Educator Award. He is one of only a couple dozen music teachers from 16 states being honored.

“It’s very clear that the Grammys value music education, and it feels great to be honored,” said Blanco.

On Thursday, he attended the Salute to Music Education Benefit Concert at the House of Blues at Mandalay Bay.

“I was actually able to see all these alumni perform on stage that were part of the Grammys in the Schools program,” he said.

Since founding the Mariachi Joya program at Las Vegas’ flagship school in 2018, he has defined what it means to be dedicated to the craft of music.

“It averages probably 70 hours a week for me,” he said.

He has also has taken the band of young musicians across the nation -- and for some big-time audiences.

“We’ve done 70 tour stops this year,” he said. “The first tour stop was a performance for Vice President Kamala Harris.”

They also played as part of President Joe Biden’s inauguration parade.

Mariachi Joya is comprised of about 20, mostly-Latino students -- some as young as 14.

Under Blanco’s leadership, they found ways to rehearse even during school shutdowns.

“Rehearsing virtually was not something anybody had done, we still wanted to make the music happen,” said Blanco. “To kind of take them out of the slump of the ‘pandemic blues,’ is kind of what we called it.”

And while Blanco is the one being recognized, he’s sharing the credit with his students.

“It’s hard not to get emotional about it, because we work so hard. The kids work so hard, and so, this is a recognition for all of us. Ya know? Our program is Grammy-nominated now because of that,” said Blanco.

He continued, “I look at the overall program, and I want the students to be successful, not just in mariachi, but ya know, we have an 100 percent graduation rate in our program. So we call it the ‘graduation guarantee.’ If you’re gonna be a part of mariachi at Las Vegas High School, you’re gonna walk across that stage.”

According to students FOX5 heard from on Sunday, learning mariachi music brought joy into their lives.

“It’s helped me in many ways; to become a better person and just play music and have fun,” said Daniel Camarena, high school junior who plays guitarron in the band.

But the students said mariachi means even more because of who brought it into their lives.

“When like all the COVID things, I was really depressed, like, I wanted to quit mariachi,” said Anthony Favela, a freshman who plays vihuela in Mariachi Joya. “And like, Mr. Blanco really helped me back into this -- yeah, just helped me out to get back and start doing what I love.”

Camarena agreed.

“During quarantine, I was just playing videos like anybody else would, and Mr. Blanco reached out to me and asked me if I wanted to learn a new instrument. I had never played an instrument in my life, and he brought one of these [guitarrons] home to me. And in a year, I’m here,” said Camarena.

Junior Jessica Halili echoed their support for Blanco, their band’s founding director.

“He’s helped me like, evolve into the musician that I am now, and the person that I am now,” said Halili.

Blanco said there are roughly 200 total students in his music education program at Las Vegas High School.