MasterMinds 2015 Revisited: Jefferson Davis High School Mariachi Pantera

Jose Niño, director of the Jefferson Davis High School Mariachi Pantera, is surrounded by members of the orchestra, Gabriella Garces, Gustavo Ruiz, Gabriel Molina, Joshua Melendez, Irael Salgado and Hector Navarrette.
Jose Niño, director of the Jefferson Davis High School Mariachi Pantera, is surrounded by members of the orchestra, Gabriella Garces, Gustavo Ruiz, Gabriel Molina, Joshua Melendez, Irael Salgado and Hector Navarrette.
Photo by Jeff Myers

This month the Houston Press will celebrate its eighth year of handing out MasterMind Awards, designed to go to three individuals or groups who have greatly contributed to the Houston area's artistic landscape. It is awarded to groups or individuals doing great things now, creative types who could use a little financial bump — a $2,000 check — as well as the added recognition the awards bring.

As we come up on our MasterMind Awards 2016, we take a minute to update you about last year's winners. We’ve already checked in with artist Patrick Renner and Houston Arts and Media Founder Mike Vance. Next up, Jefferson Davis High School Mariachi Pantera.

It’s been a year of highs and lows for the students since winning the award. Their first success occurred after they auditioned to appear at Walt Disney World, with the $2,000 prize coming in very handy. “We were chosen to perform,” says Jefferson Davis High School Orchestra and Mariachi Director Jose Niño. “That money was able to be used to help these kids, to help them get to Disney. The kids that we service, I mean, they don't get out of Houston. So, for these kids to be able to just leave the county, it was an amazing, amazing trip.”

Niño is not exaggerating. When we checked in with the school’s principal last year, Dr. Julissa Alcantar told us that the students from this downtown area high school battled serious problems, including hunger, homelessness and abuse.

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The trip was a tremendous success and, according to Niño, visitors stayed to hear the full performance, rather than pass by on their way to the next attraction. “At the end there was a standing ovation, [the organizers] had never seen it,” says Niño. It was also “really, really neat” when the members of Epcot’s own Mariachi Cobre stopped to listen to Mariachi Pantera.

Accomplishments for the students at Jeff Davis can sometimes be measured in baby steps. In order to participate in the mariachi orchestra, students need passing grades, which helps with retention. It's an expensive endeavor, however. There’s the cost for costumes, which are $600 per person, plus the expenses for instruments. “We have to pay for strings; $50 a set for those strings. Or even just repairing a bow, that costs $50 too,” says Niño. “It gets costly, but the benefits outweigh that in the long run; these kids are off the streets and in order to participate they have to pass. It's a win-win situation, not only for the core subjects, but for these extracurricular classes.”

Just as in real life, the students have had their fair share of setbacks, as well. “Our school got flooded on Memorial Day weekend, and so my room, this is what was crazy. We had just gotten back, we drove in that Sunday and everyone was so tired and we just left the instruments, [I told them], ‘just leave it there on the floor,’ and we get back and it flooded,” says Niño. Although instruments were damaged and they had to move to an even smaller rehearsal space, “our enrollment increased as far as kids and the mariachi program.”

Niño and the students are “starting to bounce back,” but “that process takes forever.” The good news is that, as soon as last year’s MasterMind winners were announced, their phone started ringing off the wall. “We kept it hush-hush, and as soon as it hit the papers, phone calls started pouring in with invitations to have the kids go and perform at different venues,” says Niño. “That was just amazing. And then to hear comments, ‘Oh wow, we never knew Davis had a mariachi program.’ These kids performed really, really, really well. And so it brought a definite recognition to our school.”

The Mariachi Pantera is not allowed to charge a fee for its performances, but the group is able to ask for a donation, which has definitely helped the orchestra begin to recover from the Memorial Day disaster.

“Well, again, on behalf of Davis High School and mariachi, I wanted to thank the Houston Press for this opportunity and the award because this award – if it hadn’t been for this award – it changed these children's lives,” says Niño. “These kids would not have been able to go on this trip; this was a once in a lifetime opportunity.”

See who wins the 2016 MasterMind Awards at the Houston Press Artopia party starting at 8 p.m. on January 30. Winter Street Studios, 2101 Winter Street. For information, visit Advance pricing $55 until January 29 at midnight, day of pricing $65 at the door.

MasterMind Award winners 2009 Patrick Medrano and Katy Anderson, Hightower High School's Broadcast Academy, Nova Arts Project

MasterMind Award winners 2010 Reginald Adams and the Museum of Cultural Arts, Houston, Opera Vista, SoReal Cru

MasterMind Award winners 2011 Foodways Texas, Catastrophic Theatre, Nameless Sound

MasterMind Award winners 2012 The Buffalo Soldiers National Museum, Alex "Pr!mo" Luster, The Pilot Light Restaurant Group

MasterMind Award winners 2013 Opera in the Heights, Karen Stokes Dance, Stark Naked Theatre

MasterMind Award winners 2014 Chuy Benitez, jhon r. stronks, Apollo Chamber Players

MasterMind Award winners 2015 Patrick Renner, Jefferson Davis High School Mariachi Pantera, Houston Arts and Media founder Mike Vance

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