LIVERMORE -- As sixth-grader Alejandra Arroyo strolled onstage, she peered out from under her black and white sombrero and nearly froze as the Bankhead Theater audience focused its attention on her.
But any stage fright didn't last long, as trumpets, vihuelas, guitars, violins and guitarrónes began to play, sending Alejandra into her comfort zone and allowing her violin and vocals for the song "El Rey" calm her nerves.
Alejandra is one of 20 kids in the Mariachi Vaqueros de Livermore, a mariachi club based at Livermore's Junction Avenue School, which serves kindergarten through eighth grade. The club's focus is on teaching mariachi music to kids in the Tri-Valley and is open to students from the Livermore, Dublin and Pleasanton school districts.
"I feel really happy," said Alejandra, 12, one of two lead vocalists for the club about being a member. "I feel good that I get to play music from my own culture in California."
In its second year, the club is building a following, with members from the first grade up to seniors in high school participating. With a mix of students from both Mexican and non-Mexican heritage signed up, the club is the only one of its kind in the Tri-Valley and one of a handful in the East Bay, said Belia Martinez, program coordinator.
For $40 a month, students from beginners to advanced receive instruction from veteran mariachi musicians from Northern California. Students can pick between the trumpet, guitar, guitarrnón -- a large basslike guitar -- violin and vihuela, which is similar to a ukulele.
On Sunday, the club's novice to advanced members entertained for the Livermore Valley Education Foundation's Reach for the Stars program. They performed a three-minute rendition of "El Rey." It was the group's second major performance of the year.
"This is tradition, and we can't let our culture go away," said Jose Somoza, whose son, first-grader Rafael, is one of the club's youngest members. "Hopefully, by the time (Rafael) is in a high school, he'll be a pro."
Rafael, like most of the club's members, has had no previous experience playing mariachi music, but many are quite familiar with the music, thanks to their parents playing it for them.
"The songs have a story in them and different meanings, and for me it's just memories from my childhood," said Martinez, who grew up in Texas near the Mexican border. "It definitely holds a special place in my heart and I have great memories growing up with great grandparents listening to it."
Mariachi music evolved from rural Mexico and began as a way for farmers and ranchers to tell stories in what today is either called sones or rancheras, said Araceli Varela, co-director of Mariachi Education for Tradition and Advancement, a Hayward nonprofit whose Mariachi Juvenil de Hayward program is one of the oldest in the East Bay.
"Mariachi is the essence of who we are," Varela said. "It is our tradition and when you see adult mariachi it moves you, but you see kids playing it, it is a whole different feeling. We are in a world where tradition is fading away and here we have kids keeping tradition alive."
Juvenil de Hayward began in the mid-'90s, but META was founded in 2011 with the goal of helping underserved youth realize their educational dreams beyond high school through mariachi music.