Mariachi captivated veteran music teacher Rosemary Flores as a girl when visiting her maternal grandparents in Kansas City, Her grandfather played vinyl records on a Victrola featuring traditional Mexican sounds.
“I fell in love with that style of music,” she said.
At school in South Omaha the only child studied classical violin. “I grew in love with it. I was a charter member of the Omaha Area Youth Orchestra,” The family home resonated with song. “My parents were always singing.” Thus, music was her birthright. “It was natural for me. I didn’t have to work very hard to learn it. It just fell into my hands.”
She took private lessons at Schmoller & Mueller Music Store downtown. Upon graduating South High at 17 she became the first in her extended family to attend college when she went to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln on an American GI Forum scholarship.
“I got my first experience playing ‘The Messiah’ with the massive university chorus and the orchestra. It was fantastic. The music is harder than the dickens, but it was exciting to be a part of that.”
After a year in Lincoln she transferred to then-Omaha University, where she earned a music teaching degree.
Her Omaha Public Schools career began as a traveling music teacher. Then she replaced a teacher at Indian Hills Elementary in her beloved South Omaha. She found her niche there and never looked back.
“I felt I made an impression in showing Latino students that you can do it – you can get out of the packing plants and do something other than hard labor.”
This fall the Nebraska Latino Commission recognized her decades serving youth in the community with its Inspiration Award.
For her, “the best moment is when a kid gets a total understanding of the concept they’re trying to learn.” “The look in their eye,” she said, is priceless. “They just perk up. It doesn’t happen often but when it does that is a great feeling. You don’t teach for 30 some odd years and not reach somebody. There may be students who didn’t quite care for me but that’s okay because I gave them the best I could. They had to learn something. If they can remember you, then you know you reached them. There’s always some little thing about each student you work with that will stick with you.”
She also gave private lessons at Swoboda Music. Since retiring from OPS she’s continued sharing her gifts.
“I had to keep teaching. I worked at Guadalupe Mission School with first graders on violin and second graders on guitar. When that program ended some of the kids followed me to my house for private lessons.”
During her long career, mariachi remained alive in her soul and when the opportunity presented itself she formed the youth mariachi group, Las Estrellitas.
“I got back into mariachi music when working at the Chicano Awareness Center. I wanted to share mariachi with the youngsters. I arranged a couple tunes and started with the group at Our Lady of Guadalupe. I found a lot of youngsters were interested in it.”
Her guitar and violin players were joined by flute players. She rewrote the music for them.
“We put on a little show at the church fiesta. Anytime there was a function – somebody opening a restaurant or hosting a reception–- we would go and do our show. The real purpose of the group was to share our music with other students, so we would perform at schools.”
Community leader Jim Ramirez arranged for the group to rehearse in a school building and for buses to transport the kids to and from performances.
“It was fun. The parents were very supportive.”
The ensemble came a long way in a short time.
“The kids here don’t listen to mariachi music. They don’t hear it very often. They had no clue as to what mariachi is all about. They made a big jump.”
Flores learned, too.
“It was a challenge to learn the mariachi style because I had spent so many years in the classical tradition. Mariachi is training of a different kind. You have to feel it. Mariachi is really about hearing the piece of music over and over again. I had to work really hard to pick up the by-ear style. But it was fun.”
Her deep dive included attending mariachi conferences in Arizona and New Mexico. She saw some of mariachi’s greatest performers. “The jam sessions were absolutely marvelous.” She recalls the thrill of watching an all-female group.
“To see those women playing instruments you only saw men play. Man, they were fantastic. They looked so graceful playing.”
Thanks to Ramirez, she twice took Las Estrellitas to the conference in Albuquerque
“The first time we went, the people were totally amazed there would be a mariachi group in Nebraska. Compared to what they played down there our stuff was very basic. We had one little guy who could either stomp his foot or play the gutter – he could not do both together. He stole the show.
“We had a good time. The kids were amazed at how young the expert guitar players were there, but they’re born to it. That’s all they hear down there in the southwest. Up here we have country, rock, hip hop, which does not blend very well with mariachi. But the ones that really got into it, thoroughly enjoyed it because it sang to their heritage. We had some non-Latinos in the group as well. But music is music – if you’ve got it in you, it’ll come out.”
Heritage is important to Flores.
Her parents were born in the Mexico state of Guanajuato but met each other in Kansas City.
“My father worked on railroads and did some other odd jobs. My mother’s father worked on the railroad as well. My father moved to Omaha for the packing plants. Once he got a job up here. he went back to marry my mother and they ended up making their life together here.”
Flores has visited her family’s homeland.
“I saw where my people come from and where the current flock of people come from. I saw what they have to do to survive. I had my eyes opened to how hard people have to work to get by.”
Flores never married – “I came close a couple times” –and has no children of her own. She’s quick to quip that she had children all-day long during the school year and summers, too, and that was plenty for her.