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Oscar Tostado: Building academic success through mariachi

Mariachi youth

Maintenance Manager Oscar Tostado has been with Omnitrans since October 1985.

Oscar Tostado“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.

Oscar Tostado and Sinfonia Mexicana Mariachi Youth Academy

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.”

Sinfonia Mexicana Mariachi Youth Academy

“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.”

Sinfonia Mexicana Mariachi Youth Academy

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.

Sinfonia Mexicana Mariachi Youth Academy

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.

Sinfonia Mexicana Mariachi Youth Academy

“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.

Sinfonia Mexicana Mariachi Youth Academy

“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.

Sinfonia Mexicana Mariachi Youth Academy

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:

Sinfonia Mexicana Mariachi Youth Academy

James Plasencia: coach operator, musician & artist

james plasencia on bus

Highland resident James Plasencia has been a coach operator with Omnitrans for 6 years. Prior to that, he worked for a year at Foothill Transit where he received his training.

“I like driving the bus, then setting it down in the yard at the end of the day and being done. I’ve had a lot of other jobs where you took work home with you and could never really let go of it. And I like being outdoors. Prior to working for Foothill, I was working for an insurance company in a cubicle with piles of files stacked up. As soon as I’d get rid of one stack of files, they would come and drop off another. And I would have to make notes to call people the next day, so I would take work home with me.”

“As a coach operator, the pay is also a lot better. Without a college degree, it’s hard to find a job where you make that kind of money. So I am very appreciative of that. When I’m out there, I see homeless people and other people who aren’t doing as well and I feel really fortunate to have a job like this. Basically if you can follow the rules, drive the bus, don’t have any accidents and treat people politely, you’re good. I say hi to everybody whether they respond or not. And most of the time when passengers leave my bus they say thanks. Your demeanor has a lot to do with how people react to you.”

Omnitrans sbX coach operator James Plasencia

“I enjoy being an sbX driver, and it’s been great to be part of the first wave of drivers doing this. It’s one of the better routes I’ve had. Everybody who comes in is impressed with the bus itself—they like the whole system. They’re interested in the middle lanes and looking at the lights and the station art. We get a lot of people who are sort of testing it out and want to ride from one end of the corridor and back again. They want to see if it fits their routine.”

His passengers would never suspect that, in his private life, James is also a talented musician and artist.

“Eddie Van Halen was my big inspiration,” he laughs. “I started playing guitar when I was 14. My dad and my uncle are both musicians. My dad would try to show me some chords, but they just weren’t edgy enough, you know? But I learned them. Then I heard Van Halen and I was like ‘That’s guitar?’ That’s that instrument? Okay now I’m interested.’”

That inspired James to take what his dad had taught him, practice and bring it to the next level. Later he attended The Musicians’ Institute in Hollywood to study music.

“I was really serious. I still am serious. I mean I don’t pick it up as much, but I’m always thinking about music and listening to bands. My dream was to be a studio musician. But it’s so hard, you know? There is just so much competition. Now I do mainly acoustic, but I get a lot of good feedback about my playing. I think I’m pretty strong at it.”

Painting by artist James Placensia

Surprisingly, it was actually art that came easiest to James. Adults first noticed his talent when he was around 7-years-old.

“In second or third grade, the teacher wanted us to draw our shoes,” James said. “So we had them up on our desks, and we were drawing them. She was really impressed with mine because it had shadows and all the little scuff marks—there was dimension to it. There was something there that was different. She even told my mom that she needed to think about putting me in art school. But my mom didn’t pursue it. So sometimes I wonder what would have happened if I had been able to go to art school. That would have been pretty cool. Imagine what you could do if you had had the right education and been exposed to all those different mediums. It’s harder as an adult because now you’re trying to play catch up. You’re trying to learn it on the fly between work and family.”

sugar skulls

“I work a lot with acrylics because I feel I have more control over what I’m doing. Because I’m self-taught, I don’t really know the techniques. I just know what works best for me. If I can see it in my head and use acrylics to paint it, I know I can get close.”

art  by JP Studios

For the longest time I never considered myself an artist. People would always use that word with me and I’d go ‘I’m not an artist. I just like to draw and paint.’ But they would say things like you know art is expressing yourself. So you are an artist. It’s been hard to get comfortable with that. To me artists are great people who do these major works. I’m not like that. But maybe to be an artist is just to create, you know? You don’t have to know all the terms and techniques. I mean I’d still like to go to school and learn more, but I’ve met creative people who haven’t had any training but I like what they do. Just like musicians. I’ve met some fantastic musicians and when I asked them were they studied, they say they learned to play by ear. I think wow, that’s amazing. They are doing things that are so advanced. It’s the same with art.”

art by JP Studios

James credits his wife for encouraging him to pursue his creative gifts.

“She’s my biggest fan. I told her the other day I should make her my manager because she is always so supportive. She gets on social media and tells everyone about me and gets them to check out my page. Or if I’m doing an art show, she’s promoting that. It helps, and I really appreciate that.”

“When I first met her I was doing the music thing. I told her right off I was going to have to be going to a lot of rehearsals and gigs. She said ‘Oh that’s fine I like music.’ I was like ‘Really? You might have to come with me and help me load stuff.’ She told me ’That’s fine.’ I thought ‘Man, I have to marry this woman!’ And she cooks too! She’s a really good cook.“

James will have some of his art on display at the 5th Annual El Monte Dia de Los Muertos event on Saturday, October 18th from 1:00 p.m. -7:00 p.m. The event takes place at El Monte Valley Mall (along Valley Mall Blvd.) from Lexington Ave to Cleminson St.

You can also view some of James’ art and photos from his studio on his Facebook page.

 - Juno Kughler Carlson
juno.carlson@omnitrans.org 

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Coach Operator shares culture, sports & life lessons

Omnitrans Coach Operator Landru Gaviria

Pasadena resident Landru Gaviria has been a coach operator at Omnitrans for the past 11 years.

Formerly with MTA in Los Angeles, he has honed both his driving and customer service skills by facing some challenging situations.

“I was used to a lot of hostile passengers,” he shrugged smiling. “But I know how to handle that. I simply treat them with respect. I imagine I am taking care of my mother, my sister, my relative. I treat everybody like family. That is the secret you know. Have a good personality and show people you care. This way everybody is happy. They respond to that.”

As Executive Board #1 with the Amalgamated Transit Union, Gaviria is also proud to serve as a Union rep.

Omnitrans West Valley Coach Operators

“It has been a great experience for me because it gives me the opportunity to help the drivers,” he said. “They are my brothers and sisters, and I speak for them with my heart. We are the front line for Omnitrans. I have a good relationship with both drivers and management and have faith that we can come together in a way that benefits everyone. I am happy here and glad that I have a job. Times are hard—not just here, but all over the world.”

Gaviria knows about hard times. He came to the States from Lima, Peru 41 years ago when he was just 19-years-old and seeking a better life. He found work and married Juanita, the love of his life and a former neighbor from Peru. Together they had three beautiful children.

Landru and Juanita Gaviria

Landru and Juanita Gaviria

Gaviria’s personal drive, his love of community and his passion for soccer continued to grow and eventually led to an unexpected opportunity as a columnist with a Peruvian newspaper.

“I was a semi-pro soccer player.” Gaviria explained. “People from Peru over here in Los Angeles know me as a soccer player. One day the editor from the Actualidad newspaper came to me and asked ‘Why don’t you write for us, since everybody knows you?’ I said okay, I’ll take the challenge. I began writing about soccer and, later, about news stories from Peru. Now I am a regular writer for the paper on both topics.”

Gaviria never forgot his roots , He decided to use his soccer connections to help other Peruvian children.  He created a non-profit organization called Los Hijos del Porvenir, which serves children ages 5-11.

Los Hijos del Porvenir - Peruvian soccer stars

“Our goal is to keep the children of Peru away from the streets by giving them a relationship with famous, old-time soccer stars. Each year we travel with these “Old Glory” soccer players to Peru to give the children a time of joy with food and entertainment. We help them with cash and, depending on their health, we provide groceries and medicine. We have minimum support from sponsors for these trips, so me and my wife Juanita finance the expenses.”

The Inka Foundation International of Cultura. Still, Gaviria felt there was more he could do for the community he loved. He became President of a second non-profit called The Inka Foundation International of Cultura. Its mission is to advance global awareness of Andean cultural traditions and knowledge. As part of their work, the foundation assists high school students from low income families who are Peruvian descendants living in the United States. The organization provides small grants to help with textbooks or tuition so they can continue their educational studies.

“For me, as a native Hispanic from Peru, it’s been very important to help the youth in their sports and studies and for my own children to have this example in life. I am so proud of my children,” said Gaviria emotionally. ”My daughter, Michelle Martinez, is a Councilwoman for Altadena and Vice-Chair of the California Republican National Assembly. My son Landru Gaviria studied Economics at UCLA and has his Masters in Business Administration. He has given me three beautiful grandsons and is a dedicated father and husband. My daughter Sholeh Arabia is a Doctor in Psychology and specializes in treating children and young adults with autism. They are all living good lives and helping others, and they say that they have learned this from us. This touches my heart and is my proudest achievement. God gave me this gift, and I am blessed. ”

- Juno Kughler Carlson
juno.carlson@omnitrans.org 

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Omnitrans Wins AdWheel Grand Prize Award

Omnitrans Wins AdWheel Grand Prize Award

Omnitrans earns 4 APTA Adwheel AwardsOmnitrans was proud to be honored this week with multiple AdWheel Awards from the American Public Transportation Association (APTA). These prestigious annual awards acknowledge the creative excellence of member public transportation systems and business members in advertising, communications, and marketing.

Omnitrans earned the both the First Place and Grand Prize Award in the Television Advertisement category for its sbX Launch commercial. Targeted at both English and Spanish speakers, the commercial was a key element in a successful campaign to increase awareness and use of our new sbX BRT line during service launch.  It effectively used imagery and animation to show the features and benefits of the new line with a focus on key destinations that viewers would recognize in their community. This helped generate a 54% increase in ridership along the service corridor during the first week of service.

Our OmniGo bus shelter posters were recognized with a First Place Award in the Billboard/Outdoor Advertising category. These posters were a key element in our 2013 “back-to-school” advertising campaign that boosted ridership by 43.9% over the prior year during the promotion period and helped generate a sustained 16% ridership gain year-to-date on the neighborhood shuttle service. The ads effectively used images and text to reach the student market segment and promote OmniGo service as a convenient transit option for school trips.

Finally, our Omnitrans mobile app received First Place Award honors in the Mobile App category. Created September 2013, the app features NexTrip real time bus arrival information, rider alerts, bus book, social media, events and more. Through the app, we have been able to introduce digital free ride coupons for the first time, send push notifications for critical news, and offer special promotions to users. Currently the app has more than 20,400 subscribers.

 

 

 

 

 

Commuting by skateboard and bus

Skateboard and Bus commuting

Adrian Olivas has one of the more unusual commuting styles we’ve come across. The 21-year old student has spent the past summer in Chino traveling by skateboard and Omnitrans.

Skateborder and Omnitrans Bus Rider

“I have a car, but I’m restoring it,” he explains. “A few months ago I picked up a ’71 Volkswagen Karmann Ghia. I’m redoing the interior, so I can’t use it right now. I use my skateboard and the bus to get wherever I need to go. I live off G Street, so I take the skateboard to catch Omnitrans at the transit center. It works pretty good because you can carry it around with you. It’s not as big as a bike. And when I take the train to Los Angeles twice a month, I can skate to my grandparents’ house. It cuts down the travel time.”

omnitrans bus and skateboard

In addition to his skateboarding, Adrian enjoys listening to music, going to shows and doing portraits in charcoal and pastel. An architecture student at the University of California Santa Cruz, he is interested in commercial design because it’s bigger and more complex. It allows him to be more creative. He explains that after he earns his Bachelor’s degree, he’d like to continue his studies in another county, possibly Japan.

He is particularly curious about how people use the public transit system there.

bus commute with skateboard

“I have friends who have been before,” Adrian says. “And they’ve told me that a lot of people actually own two sets of bikes. Because it is so crowded and there’s no space for them on the bus, they will leave one bike at the station when they board and have their second one waiting at the other station when they get off.”

He finds the idea interesting. For now though, he prefers to stick to the portability and speed of his skateboard for quick trips. “It makes it very simple to get around,” he smiles.

- Juno Kughler Carlson
juno.carlson@omnitrans.org 

Adrian Olivas

Buses running, offices closed Columbus Day

Omnitrans offices will be closed,  but buses will be in service and running as normally scheduled on Columbus Day, Monday, October 13th.

We wish all our riders a safe and happy holiday weekend!

SBPD SWAT practices emergency bus drills

San Bernardino Police Department SWAT drills with Omnitrans bus

Omnitrans works closely with local law enforcement agencies to ensure ensure the safety of our passengers in the event of an emergency.  Yesterday, the San Bernardino Police Department’s SWAT unit practiced training drills with one of our Omnitrans buses. The team was able to thoroughly familiarize themselves with our coaches, both inside and out, and to strategize action plans for different scenarios.

Below are photos from this event. Click to view larger. More photos can be found on our Flickr page. 

San Bernardino Police Department SWAT drills aboard Omnitrans

SBPD SWAT training drills

San Bernardino Police Department SWAT

San Bernardino Police Department SWAT unit

San Bernardino Police Department SWAT

San Bernardino Police Department SWAT unit

SBPD SWAT

Click here for more photographs from this SBPD SWAT  training drill.

-  Photos by Juno Kughler Carlson