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Graduate profile | Wenatchee grad finds motivation in mariachi, heads for college

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Editor’s note: This is the second of four reports on graduates from Eastmont, Wenatchee and WestSide high schools and Wenatchee Valley College.

WENATCHEE — Luis Perez went from failing several classes in his freshman year to achieving honor roll status.

He’s headed for college this year as a soon-to-graduate Wenatchee High School senior.

“It’s because of the mariachi program,” he said, which helped him discover a passion for music and teaching. “I have no idea what else I would have done.”

One of 486 WHS students expected to pick up their diplomas Friday during the commencement ceremony at the Wenatchee Apple Bowl, Perez will start at Central Washington University this fall.

Class of 2019 commencement exercises

He will be the first in his family to attend college. His plan is to be a music teacher.

Perez was an Orchard Middle School sixth grader when he signed up for a beginning mariachi class.

“It was a way to connect to my parents,” he said, as they listened to the traditional Mexican folk music.

His parents, both originally from Mexico, met in California and moved to Wenatchee in the mid-1990s. His dad, Juan Perez, works in the agriculture industry. His mom, Francisca Cano, operates an in-home child care center.

In sixth grade, he learned to play the guitarrón (a six-string acoustic bass guitar). As he continued through middle school, the only musician in his family, he got called on to show off his skills at family events.

His older brother Erick, now 22, a WestSide High School grad, likes listening to music, but doesn’t play. Little brother Ivan, 7, a Washington Elementary School student, might take it up when he gets older, but isn’t there yet.

“They always want me to bring out an instrument and sing a song or two,” Luis Perez said.

He doesn’t mind. He found he was good at it and enjoyed it.

The transition to high school, though, was bumpy. He struggled and failed a couple of classes.

“I didn’t care about school at the time,” he said.

His attitude changed when he realized he needed to pay more attention if he wanted to be in the award-winning advanced mariachi class as a sophomore.

“While you’re in the group, you have to have the grades,” he said. “It was a big motivator.”

He auditioned for WHS’s varsity mariachi program, Mariachi Huenachi, led by instructor Ramon Rivera, in April 2016, toward the end of his freshman year.

“They usually put up the list right before spring break,” he said. “I was pretty excited to see my name. I feel like it’s everyone’s dream to get into that group — at least everyone in the mariachi program. I felt pretty good about it.”

He spent his sophomore year playing academic catch-up, moving beyond the required “passing grade” to earn a 4.0 for three semesters in row as a junior and senior. His cumulative GPA at graduation is around a 3.5, he said.

He also started learning to play the vihuela (a small five-string guitar) and the guitar as a sophomore, adding the violin, voice and keyboarding as a senior.

He became a section leader, helping others interpret the music and play it correctly. He liked the teaching aspect and found himself helping others in history, social studies and English. He’s since taught several mariachi workshops.

During this final semester in high school, all of his classes are in the music department.

Mariachi’s also an integral part of his social life. He belongs to a local band, Mariachi Imperio Real, performing at family and community events around the area.

“They’re like my best friends, so I’m around music all the time,” he said. “They’ll call and say, ‘We’re having a small hangout. Bring your instruments. So, yes, I do have a social life, but it consists of music as well.”

He started seriously considering college late in his junior year.

“Mr. Rivera really pushes us to attend college,” he said. “He takes us to tour universities and he pushes for higher education.”

Perez set his sights on CWU’s music program. The first hurdle was figuring out the audition. He had studied guitar, but that wasn’t one of the programs offered.

Voice was his only other option, so he enrolled in choir and started private voice lessons, preparing two pieces for the January audition at CWU. He was accepted and has since received scholarships from the Wenatchee Valley Appleaires, Mariachi Northwest Festival, Washington Apple Education Foundation and others.

He also participated in the WHS mentoring program that pairs students with adults familiar with the college application process.

“I didn’t know it was a thing,” he said. “I heard about it on the announcements early this year and they said they still have spots open, so I applied. It helped a lot and kept me on track. Being the first one in my family to go to college, I didn’t know about the whole process.”

Overall, he is pleased with the course he has set.

“I feel I’ve accomplished something. And my parents are supportive. They’re really proud,” he said, though his mom jokes about him leaving home. “I’m looking forward to college. I’m going to miss my parents, but I’m counting down the days.”

Nevonne McDaniels: 664-7151{