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At 6 p.m. on a Monday evening, an ex-rocker named Bob Bell, along with 18 other music students, tune various instruments in classroom 801 at Southwestern College. Music 157, also known as Mariachi Garibaldi, is about to begin. Bell played rhythm guitar in ’70s cover bands Trix, Sundance, and Prysm. Now, his musical future lies in the playing of the traditional roots music of Mexico on his Spanish acoustic.

“Big leap, huh?” says Bell. “We lived in Chula Vista when I was 7 or 8, and my dad and I went to Tijuana almost every weekend.” That’s where Bell, 50, first encountered mariachi music, an experience he says was embedded but remained dormant through his rock-and-roll days. A few years ago, he heard the Southwestern mariachi ensemble.

“I was a kid again. I had to get in a group where I could wear that outfit.” He is speaking of the traditional bullfighter-ish uniform of mariachi performers, which he acquired after enrolling in Music 157. Bell says it cost around $450, a portion of which was subsidized by the college.

Southwestern offers the world’s first college degree in mariachi music. The idea was born in 1997, when then-campus president Serafin Zasueta called Jeff Nevin, a professional mariachi who was also a graduate student at UCSD. “He wanted to start a mariachi program,” says Nevin, “and he wanted to offer it as a degree integrated into the music program.” Nevin now chairs the performing-arts department at Southwestern. “We began the process of drawing up the mariachi curriculum in 1998,” he says, “and the letter of acceptance that approved the degree came from the California Community College chancellor’s office in 2004.”

Nevin says that seven high schools in the Sweetwater and Chula Vista school districts offer similar programs. Old-school mariachi, however, is passed on within families. Has the academic process violated tradition?

“There are some who would say that,” says Nevin. “They would be the ones who learned it that way and have difficulty seeing beyond what it is.”

Perhaps not hip by pop-culture standards, mariachi maintains common appeal among the hundred or so students enrolled in the four Mariachi Garibaldi classes. More than a third of these students, says Nevin, play professionally.

“The music is fun,” says Bell. “When you listen to it, you can’t help but be happy.”

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