Official newspaper of The University of Texas at Austin

The Daily Texan

Official newspaper of The University of Texas at Austin

The Daily Texan

Official newspaper of The University of Texas at Austin

The Daily Texan

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October 4, 2022

Remembering the Godmother of Mariachi

Courtesy of Alejandro San Miguel.

This past summer, in a small room in San Antonio, Belle Ortiz lay in her bed serenaded by masses of mariachi musicians. Vibrant trajes lit up her room, all gathered at the bedside to say their goodbyes and pay homage to the woman responsible for spreading their beloved music and bringing their culture into Texas schools.

Born and raised in San Antonio to Mexican parents, Belle Ortiz began piano lessons at age four and her talents quickly flourished. After graduating from Lanier High and earning a Performance and Music Education degree from Our Lady of the Lake University, she became an educator in the mariachi world and her endless efforts to integrate mariachi music in Texas schools earned her the title “The Godmother of Mariachi.”

Belle’s widower, Juan B. Ortiz, a co-founder of Mariachi Campanas de America and current instructor at San Antonio College, said she lived as “a unique entity — an extreme visionary” destined to be a leader.

Juan said Belle began her career in education at San Antonio ISD and created a dance and musical group called “Los Tejanitos” at Barkley Elementary. Because of the program’s success, the principal at Lanier High recruited Belle to become the school’s choir teacher. Soon thereafter, in 1970, she started the first high school baile folklórico and mariachi program in the United States.

“Very few people are blessed and fortunate to see their flowers blossom into fruition — we saw (mariachi) being accepted by the schools, by the community, and we didn’t stop there,” Juan said. “We said we need to give this art form legitimacy.” 

Juan said he and Belle started the Texas Association of Mariachi Educators, which encouraged the Texas Music Educators Association to make mariachi a category for their statewide competitions. Yet incorporating mariachi music into the Texas curriculum did not come without its hardships. 

“(Belle)’s greatest obstacle was (that) she was told not to teach songs in Spanish,” Juan said. “Belle, accepting the challenge, said ‘I’ll stop teaching in Spanish if we stop teaching in the other foreign languages.’”

Juan San Miguel, Belle’s grandson and UT jazz studies and government senior, said Barkley Elementary reluctantly granted Belle permission to establish a dance and musical group, but allocated only a custodial closet for rehearsal space. Yet, Belle’s dedication connected several generations of Chicanos to their Mexican heritage. As a result of her perseverance as an educational pioneer, more than 2,500 school districts, colleges and universities now offer students an education in mariachi. 

San Miguel said Belle went on to co-found Mariachi Campanas de America — which translates to Bells of America, a pun on Belle’s name. The esteemed band performed at the White House for President Bush and at numerous symphonies across the U.S. She expanded mariachi’s footprint in 1979 by co-founding the first International Mariachi Conference and Festival.

“She didn’t play (musically), but she knew what a performance should look like,” said Alejandro San Miguel, Belle’s grandson, a UT jazz studies and government junior. “She was always the vision(ary) — there was no such thing as dreaming too high.” 

Juan San Miguel said he strives to keep mariachi alive through education. 

“Always fostering the youth is the biggest thing because it’s the youth that carries on tradition,” Juan San Miguel said. “Continuing to play and share the music — it’s the core of what (Belle) was so passionate about.”

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