Maintenance Manager Oscar Tostado has been with Omnitrans since October 1985.
“I started working in transit right off the bat. When I was graduating from a national tech school, the instructor pulled the top three students in the class and asked us if we would be interested in going to work for Southern California Rapid Transit District (RTD) in Los Angeles. At the time I think I was making around $6.50 an hour, and he said that as an apprentice we would start off earning $9 plus change. It was astronomical money for me at that time, so I said yes sir!” Tostado laughs. “It was my first real job. I worked as a mechanic and moved on up the line there. Right around the time I was able to attain a supervisor position, I accepted a job with Omnitrans. It’s been a good career for me.”
Tostado is also the director of Sinfonia Mexicana Mariachi Youth Academy. The mission of this non-profit organization is to provide a course of study that will challenge and enhance the student’s ability to read music, master their instruments and enhance stage presence through the art of performing mariachi music.
A sports athlete himself, Tostado became first became interested in music and the performing arts when his son was in school.
“As a kid I was a total football jock—it was always sports, sports, sports with me,” he laughed. “My mom wanted me to play music. I did learn to play piano and a little on the saxophone, but I fought her tooth and nail every step of the way. All I wanted to do was play football. Later, my son wanted to follow in my footsteps but he was all thumbs when it came to playing sports. Instead, he got into music, singing and theater arts.”
“When my son was in grammar school, he started playing in a mariachi group made up of about 40 kids. Now, typically, mariachi is taught by ear. In Hispanic families you are taught to pick up the guitar, put your fingers here, strum this way, strum that way, never once learning how to read music. So these instructors would teach these kids to play by ear. Only about five of them actually learned how to read music. Over time, we tracked all the children in the group and noticed a weird little statistic that I found interesting.
“We found that the kids that learned how to read music, play music, sing and dance would go on to college/universities. The ones that did not were always struggling with school and struggling to stay in the arts program. Eventually they decided not to continue their education but to make a living at some minimum wage job. There are studies that have shown that kids who play instruments and learn how to read music, perform better at school for some reason. It helps them develop abstract reasoning for math and the sciences. It’s great exercise for your brain.”
As the years went by, Tostado thought he would love to do a mariachi band again and reach out to underprivileged kids. But rather than having the children learn by ear, they would be taught to read music first. He believed that if these kids could be taught to read music, they would be able to advance themselves in school. Soon he would have the opportunity to put that theory to the test.
In 2006 he became involved in the Sinfonia Mexicana and was invited to join its Board of Directors. The Sinfonia regularly performed cultural music, classical and Hispanic music at the California Theater. However, most of the musicians were older people. The Board decided they would like to reach out to the youth in the community. Tostado saw a chance to implement his ideas and the Mariachi Youth Academy was born.
He had two immediate hurdles to face. Because he wanted to reach out to kids whose families did not have a lot of money, it was critical to secure grants. The second challenge was finding qualified instructors. At one point he had several mariachi instructors lined up to interview, but none of them showed up once they realized they had to be able to competently read music and teach music theory.
During his time with the Sinfonia Mexicana, Tostado had gotten to know Cindy Shea, owner/founder of the Mariachi Divas. Cindy has a degree in music and her future husband, Alberto “Beto” Jiminez Maeda, was an accomplished composer. When they heard about Tostado’s plans, they were very excited and interested in becoming instructors for the project.
“It was fantastic,” he said. “When we were finally able to pull it off, we had this big chunk of kids who all knew how to play music but not how to read it. Beto would get them in line by taking the standard mariachi music and rearranging it so he would know instantly if they were playing by ear or actually reading the notes. It was hard to transition them, but the kids started to develop.”
They put the word out to the community through school flyers and word of mouth. They knew the program would cost each child approximately $60 a month and were able to secure the grants and donations they needed in order to offset the expense. At first they considered offering the lessons for free, but decided to instead charge $20 per month–$5 per lesson—to ensure the children were personally invested.
“The affordability was how we got the buy in from all these underprivileged kids,” explained Tostado. “The other incentive that really got things rolling was that we were also able to buy them uniforms. Just a basic mariachi uniform can run $300-$400 apiece. We wanted to have a carrot to incite the kids to move forward so we had different uniforms for the intermediate group and the advanced performing group that were progressively more elaborate. If you learned to read music and make it to the next level, you would be put into this other group and now you get a fancy $700 uniform. It worked.”
Today the Academy currently has seventy five students that attend grade school through high schools from San Bernardino, Rialto, Fontana, Colton, Bloomington, Yucaipa, Riverside, Oak Hills, Phelan, Hesperia and Los Angeles. We have classes for beginners, intermediate, advance and performing level students. The musical expertise and stage presence these young musicians have gained through their experience at the Academy have given them the poise, skill, discipline and confidence to pursue their dreams through higher education.
Performing level students performing with the Best Mariachi in the World, Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlan, at the California Theater.
“At every level the directors, instructors and Board Members continually stress the importance of the continued education of our students,” said Tostado. “We have even established a scholarship fund and workshops to help those who are college bound. The Academy has many success great stories. Many Academy students are first generation college students. Watching these young people transform and realize their true potential is simply incredible. I am so proud of what they have accomplished.”
You can read and learn more about the Sinfonia Mexicana Mariachi Youth Academy on: