People Who Make S.A. Great: Music teacher Belle Ortiz

San Antonio's Belle Ortiz changed the world with Mexican music.

San Antonio is one of the nation's fastest-growing cities, with huge military bases, plus tourism and tech. But it's the people who make San Antonio great!

That's the idea behind a new KENS 5 series, profiling people who've had a major influence on our city. We begin with a teacher who changed the world with Mexican music. She’s a marvelous musician, and an advocate of the music made famous by mariachis.

Belle Ortiz grew up in Mexico but as a teacher here in San Antonio, she often wondered why the music she loved wasn’t being taught in public schools.

In the 1960’s she began to advocate for it, even presenting her case to the SAISD school board.

"I said, ‘A person is richer when you can speak more than one language,’” she recalled. “I said, ‘And you know it, you're an educator.’"

At the time, she had no degree, no political clout, and no background writing sheet music. Still, she believed mariachi music should be taught in class at Lanier High, alongside choir, jazz, and marching band.

"We have all these things to offer our high school kids except mariachi. Well, we don't have anybody that can teach it. So I said I can teach it," Ortiz explained.

That was 1970. She taught the lessons and, eventually, wrote the sheet music. Today, more than 2,500 students study mariachi in 18 separate SAISD schools as well as other districts in San Antonio, across Texas, and in almost every state.

And it’s all based on the pioneering work of Belle Ortiz.

"It's amazing to know Belle Ortiz personally, that she's still around with us today,” said Cirilo Campos, who teaches mariachi at Lanier and who was taught by Belle's son. "Forty years ago, mariachi education, it was not seen as something we do inside the classroom, only after school. And here we are today. It's a privilege, an honor for me to know her, and for me to have in my hands the program where it all started."

Ortiz’s curriculum was soon picked up by other district schools, then other districts, then other cities and eventually other states. Years later, it even went beyond American borders to schools around the world.

"It mushroomed,” Belle said. “It went all over."

But what makes Belle most proud, she says, is that her program opened doors of education and advancement to her students. The performances helped them earn scholarships or enough money to pay for college tuition.

“They used that music as the vehicle to get their degree,” she said.

It’s a lasting legacy, spreading Mexican culture one classroom at a time. Belle Ortiz is one of the people who make San Antonio great.

© 2017 KENS-TV


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