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High school band shows bright side of Santa Ana

High school band shows bright side of Santa Ana

The Marching Saints of Santa Ana High School bring tradition and their unique style of music to the city’s Fiestas Patrias parade on Sunday.


SANTA ANA – When Santa Ana High School’s marching band makes its way along Main Street Sunday, the theme of the annual Fiestas Patrias parade will have special meaning to them: “Our Town.”

“It’s a really nice opportunity for the community to see what the school had been doing, and how hard it’s been working,” said senior Celeste Maya, 17, who plays alto sax. “It’s one of the few times that my parents can see the progress that I’ve made. They’re really proud to say, ‘My child has been in this marching band.'”

The parade, which begins at 4 p.m. on Sunday, is a highlight of the city’s weekend celebration of Mexico’s independence from Spain. The 34thannual festival will bring music, vendors, rides and games to downtown Santa Ana’s Fourth Street for what is the largest celebration of Fiestas Patrias outside of Mexico. Last year, some 265,000 people attended the fiesta, with more than 50,000 lining the parade route.

The young musicians who play in the band – some 130 Marching Saints decked out in red and white – want the world to know that despite the city’s gritty reputation, it’s a place where kids excel, where parents and teachers care and where their Latino culture thrives. In a city known for its young population, it’s a place that takes pride in its traditions, and its place as Orange County’s oldest high school. Organizers believe that Santa Ana High has taken part in the parade since it began.

“We tend to have a bad reputation – Santa Ana High School and also the city,” said Norma Mendoza, an 18-year-old senior who plays clarinet. “This is showing them that we’re not just about bad stuff. We have some good stuff here, and that’s where we get to show it off.”

The band has been rehearsing three songs picked out for the parade. “When the Saints Go Marching In,” along with a Mexican national favorite called “La Marcha de Zacatecas” and a popular Mexican tune called “Y llegaste tu” by Banda El Recodo.

While the first is the school’s fight song, the latter two are the selections that will bring a smile to the faces of their heavily immigrant audience on Sunday, the students say – smiles of happiness and recognition, and of reminiscences.

“What I want them to see is that we’re still keeping our culture alive,” said Mendoza. “Other bands won’t be playing the same things we are. My family can see that I don’t just go beep beep beep. There’s more to it than sound coming out of my instrument – it’s actual music that they grew up listening to.”

The band is led by Victor de los Santos, 28, in his sixth year as director. His kids, he says, might not have had private lessons like young musicians in more affluent communities, but they work hard. Besides long hours of practice, they face pressures at home, such as babysitting duties for parents who work two or three jobs.

“When I first got here, I told the kids, I’m not going to teach you like high school,” he said. “I’ll teach you like adults. We’re going to play adult literature. And that’s how we’re going to get better.”

It took some adjusting on both sides. After he arrived as an assistant band director, de los Santos, who received a bachelor’s in music and education at Cal State Dominguez Hills, said he didn’t feel like he meshed well with the students – until he decided to do things his own way.

And he remembers his own reluctance when his father encouraged him to include Mexican music – “La Marcha de Zacatecas” in particular – in the repertoire of any high school band he directed, because it was like Mexico’s second national anthem.

“My father is a true, true Mexican,” de los Santos said. “He wears sombrero when he leaves the house. He’d always tell me, ‘La Marcha de Zacatecas.'”

De los Santos said that at first he didn’t get it. But then he discovered “Zacatecas” in the Santa Ana High music library, and introduced it to his band about five years ago.

“Once again, it was the whole son and father thing,” de los Santos said. “Over time, I realized that a big part of Mexico considers that song to be their national anthem almost. What better way than for us to play it on this day. It deals with the whole idea of independence, and pride in where you come from. In fact, every time our football team gets a first down, we play the intro of ‘Zacatecas.’ It’s kind of funny. And then the whole crowd is going ‘Yay!’ The parents do the whole big eye thing, like, ‘Hey, I know that!'”

Just as he did, his students caught on.

“The first year I pulled out these songs, everyone complained,” de los Santos said. They considered the music of their parents’ generation, not their own.

“I felt like these kids were almost trying to get away from their own culture, simply because it’s not the cool thing right now,” he said.

He encouraged his kids to listen – to him as well as to their other instructors. “Everyone has something to teach you,” he said.

He preaches the story-telling power of music, and its emotion – even when it comes to “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

His young musicians say they’ve learned – not just about music, but about life, and about what they can give to Santa Ana.

“When we play music, we’re taking music from the page,” said Daniel Sanchez, 17, a clarinet player and the band’s drum major. “Once we play it in the parade, we’re playing music back into people’s hearts, and giving them a sense of pride in their culture.”

Miguel Montelongo, 17, plays cymbals, cello and marimba and takes part in several of the school’s musical groups, such as mariachi and jazz, as do many other musicians.

“You can sometimes see your family or your friends cheering you on, and that makes you happy,” he said. “Being in the band has taught me a lot of things, not just music-wise….There’s a lot of lessons you learn. Not just how to play this or how to play that, but how you are with people.”

De los Santos says he’s honest with his kids. He says that when he returns to Dominguez Hills to speak to students each year, someone will inevitably associate Santa Ana with shootings and drug busts. And he’ll tell them they’re wrong. Santa Ana High and his bands, after all, have put kids into top schools across the country. The band’s trophies go back decades.

“I tell them I’ve worked here for six years, and I’ve never seen a gun, never seen drugs, never seen a knife,” he said. “I come back and tell the kids, wherever we go, Santa Ana has a bad reputation. And it’s not because of what you guys are doing. It’s because of what happened in the past. Your job, wherever you go, is to show them the good side, the bright side…No matter where you go, I want you to represent what Santa Ana is now, rather than the bad reputation it had in the past.”

It’s a lot of responsibility, even for a Saint.

“I want them to realize that this band is the voice of the city,” said Sanchez. “All around Santa Ana, we almost play everywhere. It should give the city a sense of pride that we have such a well-rounded marching band. It’s unexplainable. I don’t know what they’ll take out of it, but I hope it’s something good.”

“Mr. de los Santos tells us to have pride in who you are, and to never forget where you come from,” said Maya. “That’s the biggest thing you ever learn here. After high school, you could go on to do a lot of bigger things. But in the end, you’re always going to have a place to call home. You’re always going to have Santa Ana.”

Contact the writer: 714-796-6999 or rgonzales@ocregister.com

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