MOUNT VERNON — Among those taking part in Skagit Valley College's new mariachi program is the head of the school's music department.

Diane Johnson, who has taught at the college for 23 years, is learning to the play the vihuela — something of a cross between a guitar and a lute.

"A mariachi ensemble is just so cool," Johnson said. "And here I am playing in it. This is the first time I have ever played this instrument and I have learned so much this quarter. It has been really, really fun.

The program is open to Skagit Valley College students and community members. No experience is necessary.

The program was a longtime goal of college President Tom Keegan.

He said mariachi has cultural significance, and being able to offer it is important.

"This program is part of a comprehensive community college that values the arts," Keegan said. "This demonstrates the college's appreciation for the culture, the music, and creates a sense of belonging for students."

When Keegan approached Johnson about starting a mariachi program, she contacted Mount Vernon High School mariachi instructor Ramon Rivera, who put her in touch with Rene Godina.

Godina once taught a similar program at California State University Channel Islands. He is currently a teacher at Centennial Elementary School in Mount Vernon.

"This is awesome," Godina said. "Back in California, it was just a club. But we have got such great support here from the college. They are really behind it and want kids to sign up. It's a great opportunity to learn all about mariachi and I am very excited to be a part of this."

Johnson is not only learning to play the vihuela, but is picking up the nuances of mariachi.

"And Rene is so knowledgeable," she said. "If you have a question, he's like, 'You do this, this and this' and sends you on your way. He runs all over, checking on everybody and how they are doing. He'll pick up a trumpet or violin and join in."

Skagit Valley College student Uziel Gordillo didn't hesitate when the opportunity arose to join the program and continue to learn about the musical style.

"I graduated from Mount Vernon High School, and got started with mariachi there," he said. "I really like it."

Also getting involved has been Rick Flores, the college's interim assistant director for student equity and inclusion.

"It's definitely a culture thing," Flores said. "My dad is from Jalisco, Mexico, which is the birthplace of mariachi. So I grew up with it.

"While I was attending Washington State University, I was in a mariachi group and played around the area. I heard they were starting mariachi (at Skagit Valley College) and so here I am. It's a lot of fun."

Those who enjoyed mariachi programs at area high schools such as Mount Vernon now have a place to go to continue to hone their skills.

"His (Rivera's) program and the one at Burlington-Edison are going to be great feeder programs for us," Johnson said. "Now those students don't have to necessarily go someplace else. They can stay close and continue to play mariachi."

Godina has been involved in mariachi for about 20 years, can play all mariachi instruments and has studied under numerous mariachi maestros while playing trumpet professionally throughout California as a member of Mariachi Camarillo.

"It's really quite amazing how this all worked out," Johnson said. "Rene is just such a great person to have here at the college and we still have that connection to Ramon and the ensemble at Mount Vernon."

Godina has spent years building music programs, whether mariachi or not.

"I always told myself that someday I would be teaching a mariachi class in college," he said. "So this is something I always wanted to do. It's great to be able to bring mariachi here."

Godina teaches his students the instrument of their choice, whether it be the guitarrón, vihuela, guitar, trumpet or violin. And he's also adept at teaching them how to sing.

"With the way Ramon and Rene approach it, it creates a sense of high standards of lifelong learning," said Keegan.

Johnson said it's exciting to think about the opportunities this program offers and the connections it can make with a thriving mariachi community.

JJ Cully is a Skagit Valley College graduate who teaches music at Nooksack Elementary School in Everson. She makes the commute to Mount Vernon in hopes of learning enough about mariachi to bring it to her students.

"This program is just so great for K-12 instructors who want to start programs at their own school," Johnson said. "They can come here and learn what they need to learn and then take it back to their classrooms."

Keegan is just pleased to finally hear mariachi music on the college's campus.

"It's great to see this program rolling," he said. "It's something I have been very passionate about for a long time."

— Reporter Vince Richardson: 360-416-2181,, Twitter:@goskagit,

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