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Mariachi music is a hallmark of Latino culture.
Generations of Latinos listen to mariachis – a small Mexican musical ensemble of mostly stringed instruments – and continue to pass on this beautiful part of Latino culture to future generations.
Isabel (Belle) Ortiz, who passed away in July 2023 at age 90, was one of those people dedicated to teaching and sharing mariachi music with others.
In honor of Hispanic Heritage Month, we’re celebrating Belle’s life work bringing mariachi music to the forefront of music education.
A Trailblazer in Mariachi Music Education
Belle, nicknamed the “Godmother of Mariachi,” grew up on the west side of San Antonio.
She was musically talented and passionate about mariachi from a young age.
Throughout her childhood, she performed professionally with Latin orchestras throughout the city.
After graduating from Our Lady of the Lake University in San Antonio with a B.A. in Performance and Music Education, Belle maintained her passion for mariachi as a public-school music teacher in the 1950s.
She started Los Tejanitos, a folkloric dance and music group, to help her students showcase their cultural heritage. She also launched several mariachi programs at San Antonio high schools, including Lanier High School and Thomas Jefferson High School.
“To get this type of music into the high schools and into the elementary schools, they told me no ‘cause it was bar music. It was cantina music.’ And I said, ‘No, it isn’t. It’s folk music. It’s our culture,’” Ortiz said during a 2018 interview, according to an NPR story.
She then took mariachi to the collegiate level, forming the city’s first mariachi program at San Antonio College in 1974. She also formed a similar program at Texas A&M Kingsville.
From there, Belle’s mariachi music education curriculum blossomed. She ultimately inspired over 2,500 school districts, colleges, and universities worldwide to offer their students mariachi education.
“The most beautiful thing that [students] can tell me is when they say, ‘Mrs. O., you taught us these instruments and that you made sure we were in school, that we had scholarships.’ I said, ‘No, I didn’t give them to you. You earned them,’” Ortiz said, according to an NPR story.
A Latina Icon in Mariachi Music
Belle’s legacy lives on through the Mariachi Campanas de America, an award-winning group of multi-talented mariachi musicians that Belle and her husband, Juan Ortiz, formed in 1978. The group has performed worldwide, including at The White House for five US Presidents.
Belle will also live on through her many community contributions and recognitions. These include serving as a board member for the Texas Diabetes Institute and being inducted into the San Antonio Women’s Hall of Fame.
The profound impact and influence Belle has left behind on mariachi music and music education is immeasurable.
She symbolizes the power of a Latina.
Next time you hear mariachi music playing at family events, festivals, weddings, birthdays, etc. – remember Belle Ortiz, a Latina icon who proudly upheld one of the most beautiful traditions in Latino culture.
“I think that music and the impact that she had by sharing her gift and then mentoring others will last generation after generation,” Letitia Van De Putte, Belle’s oldest daughter, told KSAT. “The best way to honor her, to honor our mother, is to continue the work of educational access and the arts for children.”
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This success story was produced by Salud America! with support from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
The stories are intended for educational and informative purposes. References to specific policymakers, individuals, schools, policies, or companies have been included solely to advance these purposes and do not constitute an endorsement, sponsorship, or recommendation. Stories are based on and told by real community members and are the opinions and views of the individuals whose stories are told. Organization and activities described were not supported by Salud America! or the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and do not necessarily represent the views of Salud America! or the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.