Mariachi group connects Hispanic families in Flint

A traditional folkloric performer in a brightly colored dress covered in ribbon strips happily dances to the music of the mariachi playing behind her.
A traditional folkloric performer happily dances to the music of the mariachi during a dress rehearsal for El Ballet Folklórico Estudiantil. Photo: Mike Naddeo

En español

As the sun set through the windows of Our Lady of Guadalupe church on the evening before their recital, the booming voices of the mariachi singers echoed around the performance space.

Dancers and musicians alike were settling in to start a dress rehearsal for the group’s summer recital. The dancers carefully placed hairpins in their hair. They put on their pink, yellow and purple dresses, along with tap-like ballroom shoes that accentuated each and every step the dancers took.

As performers warmed up their voices and instruments, the group’s director, Maestra Susana Quintanilla, was speaking in Spanish with a dancer, asking her how she and her family has been. The singers all proudly sang in Spanish. It is this culture that Quintanilla has been able to bring to Flint through El Ballet Folklórico Estudiantil.

For over 25 years, Quintanilla has led EBFE, a nonprofit organization focused on preserving Mexican culture and enriching students’ lives through dance, music and education.

“We feel like we are a cultural hub for the Hispanic community in Flint,” said Quintanilla. “People gravitate toward our events. It’s a homecoming, a reunion.”

Teaching is a personal matter for Quintanilla. She is a classically trained Mexican folkloric dancer who studied at the Instituto Nacional de Bellas Artes in Mexico City, and she wants to share her knowledge of mariachi and Mexican culture with Flint.

EBFE strives to preserve Mexican culture through education, performances and professional workshops. It focuses primarily on educating students through music lessons ranging from beginning mariachi to advanced mariachi, as well as traditional folkloric dancing. EBFE also provides private guitar, trumpet, violin, piano and voice lessons.

Based in Flint, EBFE teaches traditional mariachi music and dance to students of all ages. Participants perform locally at events like the grand reopening of the Flint Public Library and the Fiesta Mexicana at Our Lady of Guadalupe Church. The Charles Stewart Mott Foundation granted $50,000 in 2021 to support EBFE programs.

A boy wearing a black mask, white dress shirt and blue ribbon bow tie plays an acoustic guitar while seated in front of a music stand.
A student with EBFE plays mariachi music during the organization’s summer recital. Photo: Mike Naddeo

Angel Márquez-Romero, a student who has been a part of EBFE for almost three years, said his favorite part is learning about the instruments and mariachi music. He also really likes being able to talk openly with the instructors.

“I’ve learned how to play trumpet and piano,” said Márquez-Romero, “and I really like how nice the teachers are and how we can express and say how we feel.”

EBFE teaches its students about Mexican heritage and the culture of Mexican people, regardless of the student’s descent. Quintanilla said she hopes students of all backgrounds can recognize the similarities between the cultures of the U.S. and Mexico and “learn respect and tolerance for all people.”

Connecting Hispanic families in Flint

For students of Hispanic descent, Quintanilla said EBFE “acts as a conversation piece across the generations within the same family.” In some cases, families have been separated by language because children often learn English before Spanish when they live in the United States. “Teaching Mexican culture and history reunites generations and makes families stronger as a unit,” she said.

“We’re teaching the students the music of their culture and watching it resonate within them,” said Michael Abbasspour, EBFE’s music director. “This is the music of their ancestors, and we’re giving them a channel to connect with their roots.”

EBFE has made it a goal to empower the Hispanic community to feel at home in Flint. Quintanilla described the organization as a sort of thread that connects Hispanic families.

A young girl with a pink bow atop her head and wearing a rainbow patterned face mask plays a keyboard.
A young student of EBFE plays piano at the organization’s summer recital. Photo: Mike Naddeo

“There is no Mexican barrio in Flint, so the families are all spread out,” Quintanilla said. “EBFE promotes and organizes events that bring people together.”

Márquez-Romero’s mother, Isabel Romero, said EBFE has brought her and her son closer together.

“EBFE makes us stronger as a family because we practice together and I watch him practice, and it makes us more united,” she explained.

EBFE’s impact

More than just a program that teaches the culture of Mexico, EBFE also helps provide residents with needed resources and opportunities. Abbasspour told the story of one of the organization’s first students who found out about the University of Michigan-Flint through EBFE, which subsequently helped their parents navigate the various application and financial aid processes. Thanks in part to this help, he was able to graduate from UM-Flint.

When COVID-19 hit, EBFE transitioned to online classes, and — even more important — became a source of information for Spanish-speaking families.

“The Spanish-speaking communities were sometimes unaware of what was happening,” said Quintanilla. “During our classes, we would distribute information to get them in the loop.” EBFE relayed information about vaccines and resource distribution, acting as a news source for families who don’t speak English.

As long as EBFE exists, Abbasspour and the other directors said they hope the organization can serve as a safe and engaging place for anyone who chooses to participate.

Whether participants come to embrace their own culture or to learn about one that’s new to them, Alejandro Quintanilla, the dance director at EBFE and son of Susana Quintanilla, said he hopes each student will take away the “ganas,” or desire, to teach others about Mexican culture after moving on from the organization.

Romero encourages anyone who wants to get involved to join.

“This program has allowed my son to develop his musical talent and become more connected with people,” she said. “It’s really helped us a lot.”

Susana Quintanilla welcomes anyone who wants to get involved — either as a participant or as a volunteer. To learn more about EBFE and how to participate, visit