Meet Ron Morris, the mariachi-singing kindergarten teacher

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The excitement is at a fever pitch in Ron Morris’ Jurupa Valley kindergarten classroom. The 5-year-olds squirm on the rug when they’re supposed to be adding one plus zero. It’s Fall Festival day, and they’re going to be performing.

Morris makes it through math and then brings out his guitar. Faces light up. He strums a few chords and on cue the children belt out "Ay, ay, ay, ay, canta y no llores," the lyrics to the famous Mexican mariachi song, "Cielito Lindo." Their faces are serious and focused. Their arms make sweeping gestures to match the words.

"How beautiful! Very, very good, friends," Morris tells the children in Spanish when they finish singing.

The choice of song, and of genre, is deliberate. Morris teaches his students in Spanish, as Stone Avenue Elementary is a dual-language immersion school. Yet the strategies Morris employs go beyond those of most bilingual programs.

Lily De Dios sings with her classmates in Ron Morris' kindergarten class.
Lily De Dios sings with her classmates in Ron Morris' kindergarten class. Dan Tuffs for KPCC

California school districts can now greatly expand their bilingual education programs, following last week's passage of Prop 58. Although there was a ban for the last 18 years, bilingual schools still proliferated. Parents simply had to sign a waiver to permit their child to learn in a language other than English. Today, thousands of Californian children attend school where much of the instruction happens in a language other than English.

While many Spanish immersion programs draw on cultural content, few do it as deliberately and consistently as Morris.

He believes language and culture are intrinsically tied, and while many bilingual programs sing well-known English songs translated into Spanish, Morris wants to take his students' language learning up a notch.

“Mexican music is very, very rich with symbolism and hidden messages,” Morris said. When he gets out his guitar to sing, it’s as much language arts as it is a music class.

Noah Leake and his classmates make hand gestures while singing.
Noah Leake and his classmates make hand gestures while singing. Dan Tuffs for KPCC

He likes teaching a popular Mexican song called "El Caballo Blanco," or The White Horse. Musically it has challenges for children with changing pitch, and he believes kids from immigrant families relate to the lyrics.

The song, by the famous Mexican musician José Alfredo Jiménez, is about a white horse that leaves Guadalajara one Sunday to head north. The horse encounters challenges on its journey, which Morris said is richly symbolic. 

"In reality the white horse is a human being, and so it’s the story of a person who leaves Guadalajara, Mexico and makes his way north," he said.

It’s a lot more powerful than translating "Itsy Bitsy Spider" into Spanish, said Morris, adding that in "El Caballo Blanco," children get some language arts (metaphors), some social studies (migration) and geography (Mexican states).  

The song also may help the children understand the paths their families followed to the Jurupa Valley, said Morris. His students are about 80 percent Latino, many of them of Mexican heritage. Yet most were born in the United States, he said, "which means they don’t have common experiences with their parents even though they speak the same language."

Ron Morris' leads his kindergarten class in song.
Ron Morris' leads his kindergarten class in song. Dan Tuffs for KPCC

Morris doesn't only perform in the classroom. On Sundays, Mr. Morris the kindergarten teacher transforms into Señor Ron, ranchera singer, when he performs with a mariachi band at the Mexican restaurant Hortencias, in the San Bernardino forest. 

He said his love for the music came from listening to the songs his mother - from Acuitzeramo in the Mexican state of Michoacán - would play at home.

"My mother never went to school," said Morris, "so when she came here she had to spend her days down on her hands and knees in the burning sun, picking strawberries with her back breaking."  

He tells her story to incoming parents when he meets them for the first time at back to school night.

"I look around the room at the parents seated there and I see tears running down their faces [and] I realize that is their story as well," Morris said.

While he focuses on Mexican music, Morris said he includes cultural elements from other Spanish-speaking countries. He teaches the music of Cuban singer Celia Cruz, and does a unit on Spanish Alta Mira art.

Honduran parent Rommell Baiza said he has no issue with the Mexican music taught in the school. "I love it," he said. "I grew up with it too. Most of my friends are Mexican, and in a way even the way I speak is more Mexican than Honduran, so yeah, I love it."

Click the listen link to hear Ron Morris sing at Hortencias, and his students sing "Cielito Lindo" and "El Caballo Blanco."

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