FEATURED: Dr. Dahlia Guerra, Assistant Vice President for Public Art & Special Projects, the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley.
Photograph By PAUL CHOY
“You have to love what you do. I think that’s the key to being successful”– UTRGV’S Dr. Dahlia Guerra draws strength, inspiration from family and peers, Hispanic culture, and mariachi music
By AMANDA A. TAYLOR-UCHOA
When Dr. Dahlia Guerra, Assistant Vice President for Public Art & Special Projects, sets her mind to something, she doesn’t let much get in her way.
For almost 40 years, Guerra has worked at UTRGV and legacy institution UT Pan American, becoming a key figure in public arts, including the award-winning UTRGV Mariachi Ensemble Program and as founder of the annual literacy and arts program, FESTIBA.
Over the years, she has been a lecturer, Dean of the College of Fine Arts, founder of the university’s enduring mariachi program, chair of the music department, and Assistant Vice President for Public Arts and Special Projects
She has been recognized with countless awards for the mariachi program, including her most recent honor in 2021 – the Ohtli Award from the Mexican Consulate in McAllen, for her tireless work in furthering Mexican culture.
“That was such an honor to me,” she said. “The Ohtli Award recognizes individuals who have aided, empowered or positively affected the lives of Mexican nationals in the United States and other countries. I was extremely touched to receive the award.”
A passion project
In 1989, Guerra, then a lecturer at UTPA, decided to pursue a doctorate in Piano Performance at the University of Oklahoma, and at the same time started the mariachi program at UTPA.
“People asked me, ‘Why did you start a mariachi program? You’re a pianist.’ And I told them, “It’s because I love Mexican folk music,’” she said.
She had spent her childhood summers with her family, traveling to the Palacio de Bellas Artes in Mexico City to see the Ballet Folklórico de Mexico’s iconic dance performances under the direction of the legendary Amalia Hernández
“We travelled frequently in Mexico, and I thought the music and the culture of Mexico was so beautiful and fascinating,” she said.
Passionate about bringing that music and culture to the Valley, Guerra would work diligently on the mariachi program, all the while traveling to and from the University of Oklahoma to keep up with her dissertation on Mexican pianist and composer Manuel M. Ponce – the first Mexican classical composer in the early 1900s to start documenting and cataloging Mexican folk melodies.
Since she had no resources at the time to fund the mariachi program, Guerra had to think of creative ways to raise money for the expensive mariachi trajes (suits).
“I decided to sell chicken plates on the corner of one of our streets that I thought was the busiest,” she said. “My mother would make the rice, and our church offered to make the beans. And the father of one of the students made the chicken!”
One particularly windy day while she was selling chicken plates, Guerra ran into Dr. Miguel Nevárez, then president of the university.
“So, there I am, selling these plates. The beans are flying. And the president stops and asks me what I’m doing,” she recalled. “I told him, ‘I’m trying to raise some money to buy some mariachi trajes.’ And he told me to please get off the street and meet him in his office to ask for what I need.
“The big lesson learned here is that you cannot receive, if you don’t ask,” she said.
With proper funding, Guerra was able to set her goals in motion, often sewing and embellishing the intricate trajes by hand.
The mariachi program started right when Pan American became part of the University of Texas System, so making things happen was a slow process, she said.
Still, there already were excellent local schools on board with the university’s program.
“There were some high schools that had programs, such as La Joya and McAllen, and Edinburg was starting up their program. They were excited about having a program at the university level,” she said. “The better the high school programs became, the better my program got, since these were the feeder programs into the university.”
Hard work pays off
Since the inception of the university’s mariachi program in 1989, the founding group – Mariachi Aztlán, directed by Francisco Loera, has traveled throughout Mexico and the United States as musical ambassadors, representing the beauty of Mexico’s music and cultural traditions.
In 2010, Guerra, then Dean of the UTPA College of Arts and Humanities, was invited to perform for President Barak Obama at the White House with Mariachi Aztlán for a special signing of an executive order supporting Hispanic initiatives.
“We performed for the president in the White House lobby,” Guerra said. “He spoke to each one of us and shook our hands. This was a life-changing experience for many of our students.”
Mariachi Aztlán has performed at countless venues over the years, including the Hollywood Bowl, the Santa Barbara Bowl, the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., and the Smithsonian Folk Life Festival in Washington, D.C.
The group also performed with the Houston Grand Opera in 2010 – the first mariachi group to premiere with the Houston Grand Opera.
Guerra said she is proud of the mariachi program and how it has grown, including the establishing of a Bachelor’s Degree focused on mariachi.
“At UTRGV, we now offer a unique bachelor’s degree – a Bachelor of Music Education with a Mariachi Concentration,” she said. “It was recently accredited in the United States by the National Association of Schools of Music.
“I am very proud of that achievement, because it brings the music of the mariachi to the university classroom and helps create a career path,” she said.
Work in literacy and cultural arts
But for Guerra, culture has never been all about the music.
Words and visual arts matter just as much as notes and scales. Guerra founded the FESTIBA program in 2006 with the goal of promoting early childhood literacy and celebrating the cultural arts.
Since then, the program has brought guest artists, authors and scholars to UTRGV campuses.
Of course, it also included music, mariachi workshops and performances.
“Every year, about 500 to 600 students come from all over the Valley, and they get to experience big names in mariachi and learn from the mariachi masters we bring in,” she said. The only lull in live events came during the pandemic. Because of the FESTIBA mariachi workshops and performances, the annual festival helped make a widespread impact.
Today, each high school has at least two or three mariachi ensembles of its own.
And, in 2016, UIL finally started to include mariachi music.
“In that first year, in 2016, there were 56 mariachis, and today there are more than 200 mariachis, with nearly 4,000 kiddos participating in UIL,” she said. “In 2020 there were 200 participating, 83 advanced to state, and only 12 got Division Ones. It is very competitive, and of course, we’re very proud that many of these schools are from South Texas.”
But back to words and visual arts.
Through FESTIBA, Guerra has brought large exhibits to the university, like the splashy “T-Rex named Sue” exhibit, The Machines of Leonardo da Vinci, and an exhibit on Mayan art and culture.
Before FESTIBA, Guerra said, there was no dedicated celebration of cultural arts on campus, so the event has been important to supporting the arts and promoting literacy.
“I’ve really enjoyed engaging the community with FESTIBA and other projects, and I believe these types of events are so important for students,” she said.
Women supporting women
A major part of Guerra’s life is the opportunity to collaborate with strong women every day, both personally and professionally.
“For example, the women from the Center for Mexican American Studies, Dr. Stephanie Alvarez, and from the Creative Writing Department, Emmy Perez – they are amazing women and I have the pleasure of working with them on different projects,” she said. “For many years I worked with Veronica Gonzales (UTRGV Senior Vice President for Governmental and Community Relations), another powerhouse and wonderful role model here at our university.
“Our community of women is very strong at UTRGV, and I think they are leaders who have taken our university to another level,” she said.
In her family, Guerra said, her father taught her there is great power in music – but her mother taught her to always have faith.
“My precious and beautiful mother was my greatest role model and inspiration. She was always my strongest supporter and taught me to have strength and faith,” Guerra said. “My family is very important to me, and this being Women’s History Month, I think it’s important to stress that family is a big part of a woman’s life.”
Her son has been the greatest achievement of her life, she said, and she and her husband support each other with their goals.
“There’s a lot of things to juggle as women, but it can be done,” she said. “You can have a career and a family. It’s just a matter of how much work and effort you put into it. “You have to love what you do,” she said. “I think that’s the key to being successful.”
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