Story by Ashlea Sigman
Video by Christina Gunlock

Trumpet and trombone cases tossed haphazardly around them, boys in tan and brown school uniforms grimace over each note of Adele’s Rolling in the Deep. They’re trying to play faster and louder than a circle of students with wind instruments.

The rumbling of thunder from nearby mountains adds to the already charged air. Suddenly, instruments stop and heads turn. Only the rapping sound of shiny black dress shoes stepping across the stone plaza can be heard as a man with equally shiny black hair strides toward the students.

Alberto Ramirez is here.

Smiling and fist bumping a boy along the way, Ramirez unlocks a gate in the tall chain link fence surrounding the semi-pro soccer field in Valle de Bravo, Mexico. His 115 marching band students from Morelos Elementary rush through it as fast as they can and onto the lush, green field nourished by the rainy season.

Made up mostly of third through sixth graders, the band will rehearse on a field for the first time since Ramirez formed the group 10 months ago.

He lined them up back-to-back and told them to stand still because being part of a band required discipline.

In a city with no high school bands and with Mexico’s ever-present drug problems knocking on the city’s door, a group of educators is betting on music to help steer the course of little lives and perhaps save their town.

This Wednesday run-through is the only chance the Castores, or Beavers, will get before returning Sunday for Valle de Bravo’s first marching band exhibition.

The kids want to do well, but they also don’t know what to expect. They’ve never seen a marching band take the field at a high-school fùtbol game.

For 29 years, the only marching band in Valle belonged to a teacher’s college. Organized by Ramirez’s father, the elder man would often ask his son, “What are you going to leave to this world? What are you going to do with your talent?”

Five years ago, his answer was to start a middle-school marching band, the first among the town’s 24 public schools. Since then, bands at a second middle school and elementary were started, both by former students of the elder Ramirez.

Sunday’s afternoon exhibition is the brainchild of the younger Ramirez. It coincides with Father’s Day and the group stage of the 2014 World Cup. Attendance for the exhibition will be anyone’s guess.

From the stadium’s high vantage point, the plump, gray clouds drifting in from the tree-covered hills seem close enough to touch. Ramirez blows his whistle and eight girls twirling batons narrowly miss a row of saxophones.

On the side of the stadium with bleachers, Aura Carrasco is the only parent not seated. Arm through the fence, she’s snapping photos of her 9-year-old daughter, Jade, who plays the clarinet.

Aura’s pink headband and frosted blonde, pixie hairstyle compliment the pastel star tattoos visible on her shoulder when her blouse dips to one side.


It’s been a fun but exhausting year for the single mom of two elementary school-age girls. She’s worked three jobs to help pay for an instrument and uniform for Jade. This weekend will be the culmination of a year’s worth of hard work.

Aura returns to the stands as it starts to sprinkle.

“Do you want your jacket?” Aura asks her daughter.

Jade doesn’t see her. She’s waving to get the attention of another band mom wandering through the formation with an open jacket in search of her child. Jade points her to a set of clarinetists 20 yards away.

Hurrying through the ranks, the woman nears her daughter just as the formation begins to move. The girl keeps playing as her mother scoots to avoid a line of flag twirlers. Like the other students, who are motionless and at attention when the song stops, the girl doesn’t react when her mother finally drops the jacket over her shoulders.

It is Ramirez who has the attention and adoration of 115 pairs of eyes.

His whistle cues the next song, “When the Saints Go Marching In.” Arms open wide is his signal for the band members to find their place in one of the three circles that will rotate around him.

Two first-grade boys, who are too little to carry full-sized trumpets, play miniature versions called “pocket trumpets.” The shortest in the band, 7-year-old Nicolas, can’t see over the kids immediately around him and he’s lost his place. He steps sideways and bounces off Enrique, a sixth-grade trombone player and the biggest kid in the band.

Squinting to decipher the exaggerated stirring motion her mother is making from the stands, Jade misses her cue to play. She is also in the wrong circle.

Raindrops fall harder. Looking up to the sky, Ramirez asks, “Shall we continue?”

A few children shout “yes!”

“They don’t care about anything,” says Aura’s mother. “As long as they get to play, right?”

Changing lives

“Who’s not finished?” the young teacher asks from her desk.

Thirty-four children in her first-grade classroom are in varying stages of their morning assignment: copying “Valle de Bravo, Mexico, Thursday, June 12, 2014” and naming the objects drawn on the board.

While sounding out letters and checking notebooks at her desk, she tries to maintain crowd control. “Alexander, sit up,” she says to a sleepy student lying on the wooden bench that forms part of his desk.

From a raised platform at the front of the class, a girl clad in a brown uniform dress is perched on her side, head in her hand.

Grinning, she rolls to her stomach, arches backward and grabs her feet with one hand. Turning to smile, she proudly waves.

Nicolas tries to emulate her yoga pose, but is quickly spotted.

“Sit down, Nicolas.”

At Morelos elementary, it’s hard to imagine even the most dedicated teacher not feeling overwhelmed at times. On average, the 19 teachers in the morning session have 42 kids in each of their classes. The afternoon session averages about 29 kids in each of the 15 classes.

Government funding here is in short supply. The 1,250 students bring their own toilet paper.

Ramirez had been plotting to start a band two years before his old volleyball coach and former teacher, Humberto Zorrilla, was hired as temporary principal. After a 30-year career in education, Zorrilla thought the job at Morelos would allow him to coast through his last months of employment before his planned retirement. That was three years ago.

The men, who both go by “Berto,” share a love for music. Zorrilla’s passion for the drums was nurtured while he studied under Ramirez’ father at the teachers college. With their shared history and trust, both agreed a band at Morelos was a good idea. The two started to plan for the band without money.

There is wealth in Valle de Bravo, but it doesn’t necessarily belong to the 61,000 locals.


A federal initiative in 1947 dammed rivers to create Lake Miguel Aleman, named after Mexico’s public works-minded president. The lake forced locals from their homes and farms, but over time helped cultivate a tourist economy. Today, “Valle,” as it’s known, is a popular weekend getaway for the wealthy of Mexico City, many of whom own second homes in the neighboring mountains or in town with lake views.

During the ensuing electrical revolution, Zorrilla’s family relocated 13 miles outside of Valle, to Colorines, where the state’s first hydroelectric dam was built. Over time, as machines replaced people, Colorines dried up while Valle grew. Though Zorrilla still has relatives in Colorines, he hasn’t been back in six years. Today, largely impoverished, Colorines has a reputation for being home to gang members.

Though drug cartels are active throughout Mexico, locals contend their activity around Valle is often unreported by the media at the government’s request, so as not to scare would-be tourists.

Despite the risks, teacher Yanet Reyes says more young people are pulled into the underworld of the drug trade now than 10 years ago.

“They want easy money, they don’t want to work,” says Reyes.

When Jade excitedly asked her mother if she could audition for the band, Aura jumped, happy to find something positive that interested her daughter.

In the four years since they’d relocated to Valle from Mexico City following her parents’ divorce, Jade had become detached and sad. Aura would often receive letters from her daughter’s teachers saying Jade was smart and earned good grades, but didn’t express herself or participate.

Aura wasn’t sure what signing her daughter up to audition would mean.

“We just heard ‘band’ and went for it.”

Jade hadn’t practiced before her tryout and didn’t know what to practice. When it was her turn, she was asked to sing a song and repeat back a rhythm exercise. Ramirez wasn’t looking for musical sensations.

“I don’t mind if they don’t have ability, they are going to develop ability over time,” says Ramirez. “It’s all about discipline, and if the kids are good, they are going to be better because I’ll work with them on discipline.”

Not enough students tried out to form a marching band. Ramirez went about recruiting in unlikely places.

Fifth-grader Enrique’s reputation for starting fights preceded him. His teacher told Ramirez he didn’t know what to do with him anymore because he couldn’t control him.

Ramirez summoned Enrique and six of Enrique’s buddies to the auditorium.

Did they want to be in the band? They all said yes. He lined them up back-to-back and told them to stand still because being part of a band required discipline. Enrique was placed last because Ramirez knew he wouldn’t make it. As other students fidgeted, Ramirez dismissed them.

“Ah, go to your classroom, you’re not selected.”

Enrique caught on and stayed very still until he was the only one left.

“Congratulations,” said Ramirez, “You’re in the band.”

In May, a month after the first tryout and an agonizingly long time for Jade and Aura to wait, results were posted. Aura remembers walking down her steep, cobblestone street to pick up her girls from school and being met at the gate by an excited Jade who grabbed her hand and ran toward the list.

“Look, Mama, I got in, I got in!”

The new band class wouldn’t start for another week, but Jade asked her mom right away if they could go to the little stucco papelería, or stationery store, across the street from the school. She needed to choose the right color for her notebook, pencil and eraser.

With a month-and-a-half left in the Mexican school year, Ramirez started practice in early June 2013. Not having instruments didn’t squelch the excitement in the room that day as kids used chair backs and tabletops to beat out rhythms.

A Passion

Ramirez’ wife, Eli, had concerns when the couple first discussed creating the elementary band over dinner five years ago.

Back then, before Principal Zorrilla hired him as a full-time employee, Ramirez was working part time at three different schools. He’d spend the morning teaching music at Morelos, head to a middle school where he’d just started a band, then work with students in the marching band at the teachers college.

The couple, who grew up together performing in a musical group that Eli’s family created, continue to play and sing in a 12-piece band Berto says is hired for “parties, graduations, weddings and divorces.”

Eli was afraid that she and their only daughter, then a freshman in high school, would never see Ramirez. “I asked him to measure the time so he could take care of his family. He said yes, but don’t they always?” she joked.

Though working full time at Morelos, Ramirez still voluntarily leads the middle school marching band he started. His expectations for students are the same at both schools.

“Don’t move, you look weak,” Ramirez says.

It’s the end of a song during rehearsal at the back of Morelos Elementary’s aged auditorium.


“Bye, Lupita,” says Ramirez, dismissing the girl for talking.

From the first meeting with parents, the band director made it clear he ran a tight ship with no room for disobedience or parental intervention. Parents who forget are lectured.

“I’ll say, ‘Look, what did I say in the first place? That you guys are not the ones who have to intervene. The kids are the ones who have to stand on their own and if they have a problem, they have to face it.’ So the relationship is always going to be kid and teacher, teacher and kid, and the parents stay out of it.”

Beyond his strict exterior, Ramirez is a person who cares about the children as if they were his own. The week of the exhibition, he, Eli and Principal Zorrilla ate cake and sang along with part of the Morelos band at Jade’s birthday party. The weekend before, he witnessed the Catholic baptism for a newborn of one of his former students, who’d named him a godparent for the child.

He’s logged 16 years in education, a long time for someone who never thought he’d be a teacher.

“When I saw the need for music teachers, I decided to work on this,” Ramirez says. “I started to work with children – I realized that they need love. And music is that. Music is love. This is what I try to show them. Because for me, music is everything.”

The neighborhood surrounding Morelos primary school is a mix of lower- and middle-class homes tightly tucked along narrow streets and alleyways.

Once children made the band, some families were faced with the prospect of coming up with almost an entire month’s salary – and quickly. A saxophone would set a parent back 4,500 pesos, the uniform another 1,400. Some families only earn 8,000 pesos a month; many parents had two children in the new band.

Thus began a campaign to ask for money – from teachers and even City Hall. Zorrilla defrayed the cost of uniforms by offering to pay for temporary t-shirt uniforms. He also loaned parents money for instruments. A year later, two are still being paid off. He considers it a worthy investment.

“When you know or speak two languages, your view of the world is much bigger,” says Zorrilla. “When a child speaks or knows the language of music, it opens the doors of the world. When a child has music sensitivity, at the end of his life he will be a better human being, he will better serve his community. The goal of this band is to have a social impact, to have better citizens.”

Already selling homemade jewelry, managing money for a restaurant and bar on weekends and applying acrylic nails just to make ends meet, Aura was worried about how to cover the added expense.

“I knew I had to work a lot, but it would be better.”

The Grand Finale

A Catholic cathedral towers over Valle de Bravo’s central square, where the Castores and four other school bands are lining up on a sunny, Sunday afternoon in June. The square is the bustling, commercial hub of the town, surrounded by banks, restaurants, ice cream shops and other stores. But today, the rows and rows of townspeople, crammed elbow-to-elbow, are here for one reason: to see the marching bands.

Parents seem as nervous and excited as the students. A father paces back and forth, carrying a stick horse and a small instrument case, keeping his eyes on his son.

Collar popped on his tan Castores polo, the band director strides to the front corner of his band’s ranks to make eye contact with the percussionists in the back. He can barely see them over rows of yellow plumes on their white hats.

Catching their attention, he holds up his arm and blows his whistle. They start drumming and the rest of the band immediately begins marching in place.

Ramirez steps in front of the first row to lead the march. Four kids across, flag twirlers on either side, the band moves toward the cathedral, then turns on narrow Independence Street to take them up the steep hill to the soccer stadium.

Walking a dozen feet in front of the band, Principal Zorrilla is followed by baton twirlers clad in knee-high white boots and brown, sequined dance apparel. It’s the entire band’s first time to wear the smart, new uniforms. Unfortunately, it’s also one of the hottest days of the summer so far.

The band squeezes past parked cars and umbrella-covered fruit stands that spill into the street. Running alongside are parents carrying drinks, cameras, instrument cases and two stick horses. The young, marching musicians catch the attention of curious bystanders along the sidewalk.

Nicolas looks tired from carrying an instrument half his height uphill in the heat. But when the song “Rolling in the Deep” starts, he perks up and sways back and forth with his fellow trumpeters.

“Oh, he’s tiny!” a woman who spots Nicolas from the sidewalk exclaims in delight.

It takes the band 30 minutes to march to the stadium at the top of the hill. Across the field, 3,000 people are cheering and waving.

Aura Carrasco walks back and forth in front of the stands, extending her hand above the crowd to pass out her homemade Castores flags and collect the 15 pesos.

When the first band takes the field, Ramirez tells the Castores to get ready.

The kids rush to jump off the stands but bottleneck at the edge, where a three-foot drop is difficult in a new bulky uniform and carrying an instrument.

Another band teacher directs them to a set of steep steps and helps them down like beauty pageant contestants.

“When a child speaks or knows the language of music, it opens the doors of the world.”

From the stands the crowd chants, “Castores! Castores!” The kids follow Ramirez onto the field. He is their unofficial drum major.

The children breeze through their first routine with military precision, marching in three circles and playing, “When the Saints Go Marching In.” The showmanship draws loud whoops and applause from the crowd.

At the end of the song, Nicolas closes his eyes and blasts the last big notes on his pocket trumpet.

The cheers begin again from seated parents packed in the stands waving Aura’s homemade flags and holding brown paper banners. “Castores! Castores!”

Among them, Aura stands on her seat and applauds.

Little Nicolas runs to the fence where his mom is sitting, takes off his band hat and puts on an eye patch, black cowboy hat, holster and brown vest. Then he runs back to the band and takes his place in the front row. It’s time for the band to play “William Tell Overture,” and he is the Lone Ranger.

Holding his stick horse with one hand, he points his plastic gun at another pocket trumpet player who is similarly dressed. During the entire song, the boys ride their stick horses back and forth at the front of the band.

Aura is waiting under the performers’ tent with a plastic bag of water for Jade.

“I was yelling, I was crying, I didn’t know what to do!” Aura says, hugging Jade. Jade grabs one of Aura’s flags and waves it around so excitedly the material flies off the stick.

The Castores join Ramirez’ middle-school band and another new elementary band on the field for a joint performance, conducted by Ramirez. He hugs his assistant teachers who have joined him to help keep order. Five photographers buzz in and out of the children’s formations as the combined band plays the mariachi song “Viva Mexico” and “Party Rock Anthem.”

On Ramirez’ command, the band ends by raising instruments and arms high. The pose has the desired effect. Parents in the stadium stand and shout “Otra! Otra!”

A television crew scurries on the field. The mayor of Valle de Bravo recognizes each band director and assistant teacher with medals. Piped over a loudspeaker, he tells the crowd that culture helps keep children away from drugs and that’s one of the reasons the city supports the bands.

After the speeches, as parents rush onto the field, Ramirez finds his wife, who choreographed the flag and baton twirlers, and places a medal over her head from behind, then hugs her. She wipes away tears as the principal walks over to give more hugs.

With parents chanting his name, Ramirez turns around to find all of the Castores still on the field and hoping for a photo.

He won’t tolerate his band looking disorderly. The whistle comes out.

“Another line” he motions and blows his whistle.

“You are tall, you go in the fourth or fifth line.”

The pocket trumpeters hold the paper banner that was hanging in the stands for them. Zorrilla, Ramirez and Eli dash to sit down in front, then lay back so everyone can be seen.

“The children won’t forget this,” says Aura. “The adults even less.”

The Band Steps Out

Under a punishing summer sun, school bands (including Las Castores, The Beavers) paraded and performed for Valle de Bravo residents in Valle de Bravo’s open outdoor gathering of Valle de Bravo’s bands. These bands have brought the community together and given students a focus and hope for the future.

Members of Los Castores wait excitedly under a shade canopy for their turn to perform for the amassed crowd of family and townspeople. The event brought together bands from area schools in a show of unity through music.

Amara and her friend enjoy cool drinks and fruit between performances. Before joining her band, Castores, Amara spent most of her time at home and had few friends.


After a 30-minute march through town, up hills and over cobblestone roads, the young musicians arrive at their destination and the culmination of months of work.


The town honored Alberto Ramirez and his father at the performance for their contributions to the town. Music pervades every part of Alberto Ramirez’s life.


Two of the smallest members of Los Castores joined the band after they showed their commitment and enthusiasm to learn the “pocket” trumpet.


Several band members were formerly mischievous boys whom Ramirez straightened out through band participation.


The bands began their parade through town at the square, the center of the town’s community life.


Many of the parents cheered their children on from the stands, shooting photos and videos on their phones. Many parents said Los Castores united them for a common purpose.


Ramirez calls his students to a high standard and the students strive to rise to the challenge. When he showers praise the students beam.


Every band member received a medallion honoring their participation in the inaugural gathering of the bands.