Knight Arts Challenge People's Choice: Mexican American Council Hopes to Open Mariachi Academy

The Knight Arts Challenge South Florida 2014 People's Choice Awards nominees are live. The community can vote now through November 17 via text message for one of six selected Knight Arts Challenge finalists to receive $20,000 to fund their projects. It's a text-to-vote campaign: pick your favorite group, and text their code to 22333. Of the 75 finalists, the six People's Choice nominees are small, emerging groups from different parts of South Florida, all working to make the region a better place to live.

Maria Garza knows more than a little something about the challenges faced by children of migrant farm workers. She was one herself. And she's devoted a good portion of her life to trying to help those same children overcome the obstacles they encounter and to offer them every opportunity that can help them succeed -- 30 years, in fact.

Along with her husband Ciprano, she has spent more than 24 years at the helm of the Mexican American Council (or MAC for short), a not for profit agency devoting to improving the quality of life in the South Florida migrant farmworker community. Incorporating such initiatives as advancement of education, assistance in health care, fostering family engagement and encouraging cultural awareness, the group's mission has been to ensure that every child of migrant farmworkers is given equal opportunities to obtain a quality education and with it, the chance to become productive and prosperous citizens.

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"When we first started, the dropout rate among migrant children was 85 to 90 percent," says Garza, whose group was recently nominated for the Knight Foundation's People's Choice awards. "Now, it's dropped to ten percent. Since 1990, MAC has provided college scholarships to over 3,350 students. In addition, we secure and distribute over $350,000 in financial support. We're especially proud of the Annual Migrant Student Recognition Banquet, a signature event we've held for the past 30 years as a community celebration that recognizes the individual achievements of migrant farmworker students and thanks the parents for their support."

While the majority of MAC's board is composed of former farmworkers, Garza herself knows all too well the challenges these children face. "I was moved to five school districts in one year," she recalls. "I dropped out of school at the age of 13. Those experiences instilled in me the importance of continuing education and feeling secure confident that your culture will nurture and support you and help you realize your dreams and possibilities."

Garza says that while MAC's main mission is dropout prevention, the group also advocates for justice and fair treatment of migrant farm workers and their families.

"Some of the services we provide are summer camps, boy and girl scout troops, health fairs for families, college readiness and transition activities for high school students, as well as college retention and completion services for those already in college." Those initiatives are tied into a variety of year-round cultural activities that include a Mexican Independence Day celebration, a Farmworker Week celebration, a Cinco de Mayo Celebration, Christmas Posadas, and the annual celebration of Cesar Chavez's birthday.

The next major event Garza foresees is a mariachi competition in coordination with a mariachi academy they hope to conceive and construct in south Miami-Dade County. "We hope to provide students with the opportunity to learn about music and the way music reflects our unique culture," she says. "Studies have shown that when students are exposed to music, their scholastic scores exponentially. It helps instill a certain pride that increases their self-esteem and awareness of who they are and why it is important to continue with cultural traditions."

When asked how the Knight Foundation People's Choice honors will impact their efforts, Garza doesn't miss a beat. "It's an honor to be selected," she responds with no small measure of effusive enthusiasm. "Miami-Dade County has such a rich fabric of cultures and traditions, but the Mexican culture has been isolated and confined to Southern Dade. It's our hope that through the Mariachi Academy and our other initiatives, our students can help to integrate our culture into the local arts scene and exude pride in themselves, and along with that, in our community."

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