The Grammys reward Mariachi Joya, principal of the Las Vegas high school

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LAS VEGAS, Nev. (FOX5) — Music stars such as Lady Gaga, BTS and Billie Eilish are in Las Vegas on Sunday for the biggest night in music. The Grammys begin at the MGM Grand Garden Arena at 5 a.m.

But among those honored with the Grammys this week is a shining star from the Clark County School District: a music teacher who empowers his students to finish high school on a high note.

“I was truly honored to represent Nevada as a semi-finalist this year,” said Stephen Blanco, founding director of the Mariachi Joya Music Program at Las Vegas High School.

The Grammy Museum, along with the Grammys in the Schools (GITS) program, named Blanco a semi-finalist for their prestigious Music Educator Award. He is one of several dozen music teachers from 16 states to be honored.

“It’s very clear that the Grammys value music education, and it’s great to be honored,” Blanco said.

On Thursday, he attended the Salute to Music Education benefit concert at the House of Blues in Mandalay Bay.

“I got to see all of these alumni perform on stage as part of the Grammys in the Schools program,” he said.

Since inception of the Mariachi Joya program at the flagship Las Vegas school in 2018, he has defined what it means to dedicate himself to the art of music.

“That’s probably 70 hours a week on average for me,” he said.

He also took the group of young musicians around the country – and for some big audiences.

“We’ve made 70 tour stops this year,” he said. “The first stop on the tour was a performance for Vice President Kamala Harris.”

They also performed as part of President Joe Biden’s inauguration parade.

Mariachi Joya is made up of about 20 students, mostly Latinos, some as young as 14 years old.

Under Blanco’s leadership, they found ways to rehearse even during school closures.

“Rehearsing virtually wasn’t something anyone had done, we still wanted the music to happen,” Blanco said. “To kind of get them out of the ‘pandemic blues’ crisis, that’s kind of what we call it.”

And while Blanco is the one being recognized, he shares the credit with his students.

“It’s hard not to be emotional about it, because we work so hard. The kids work so hard, so it’s recognition for all of us. You know? Our program is now Grammy nominated because of it,” Blanco said.

He continued, “I look at the program as a whole and I want students to be successful, not just in mariachi, but you know, we have a 100% graduation rate in our program. That’s why we call it the “Graduation Guarantee”. If you’re going to be part of the mariachi at Las Vegas High School, you’re going to cross this stage.

According to FOX5 students heard on Sunday, learning mariachi music has brought joy to their lives.

“It helped me in so many ways; become a better person and just play music and have fun,” said Daniel Camarena, a high school student who plays guitar in the band.

But the students said the mariachi meant even more because of who brought it into their lives.

“When, like all things COVID, I was really depressed, like, I wanted to quit mariachi,” said Anthony Favela, a freshman who plays vihuela in Mariachi Joya. “And like, Mr. Blanco really helped me get back into that – yeah, he just helped me get back in and start doing what I love.”

Camarena accepted.

“During quarantine, I was playing videos like anyone else, and Mr. Blanco contacted me and asked if I wanted to learn a new instrument. I had never played an instrument in my life, and he brought one [guitarrons] my house. And in a year, I’ll be there,” Camarena said.

Junior Jessica Halili echoed their support for Blanco, the founding manager of their group.

“He helped me become the musician I am now and the person I am now,” Halili said.

Blanco said there were about 200 total students in his music education program at Las Vegas High School.

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