Yamaha honors CPP professor Jessie Vallejo with ‘40 Under 40’ award

By Reyes Navarrete, April 16, 2024

The Yamaha Corporation has honored Jessie Vallejo, associate professor of ethnomusicology with its 2024 “40 under 40” award, which nationally recognized 40 music teachers under 40 years of age from K-12, and the college undergraduate level.

The music education advocacy program highlighted Vallejo for her work teaching Latin American and Hispanic music. Moreover, her active commitment to social justice has influenced students well into their careers and has international reach.

Vallejo was nominated by Cal Poly Pomona’s Music Department Chair, David Kopplin. According to Vallejo, she was at home checking her email over coffee when she received the award.

“I’ve really seen this as an award for the places where I was a student, the professors I worked with, how they taught me how to teach, how they taught me how to think,” said Vallejo. “But I think it’s a great recognition for Cal Poly, and what we offer students. We have world class researchers, and we have world class teachers at Cal Poly in different fields. It’s not just the STEM school, we have lots of highlights all throughout the university.”

Originally from Syracuse, New York, Vallejo studied at the State University of New York at Potsdam, the Crane School of Music, the oldest music education program in the United States. After receiving her undergraduate degree, she went to the University of California, Los Angeles for her masters in ethnomusicology. Vallejo began teaching at CPP in the fall 2015.

In 2016, with the help from her network of mariachi friends from UCLA, Vallejo restarted the mariachi program on campus after approximately 20 years since the class was last offered.

The first mariachi group at CPP began in the late ‘70s, and was mostly white, with Chicano and Latinos joining the band in the 1980s according to Vallejo.

CPP’s demographics have since changed, and in 2005 CPP became a Hispanic serving school with 54% of students identifying as Latino or Hispanic as of 2023. Still in contact with some of the alumni, as band director, Vallejo made a conscious decision to use the class as cultural ambassadors by representing the Hispanic community.

“I want people to come in and feel welcomed and feel excited to share,” said Vallejo. “I want the students who come in with the heritage to feel proud and I want to prepare students so if they go out into the world and want to perform mariachi music more after graduating, they have an idea of some of the classics, but also some of the more showy repertoire that you have.”

Associate professor Jessie Vallejo showcasing her violin. | Jessie Vallejo

David Gonzalez, a general music student and guitar player for CPP’s Mariachi Los Broncos, expressed how Vallejo encouraged him to be more involved on campus. As his mentor, Vallejo was instrumental in showing a path for him in his pursuit for a master’s in teaching.

As with Monserrat Lujano, a middle school music director at Pomona Unified and former flutist for Mariachi Los Broncos, she thrived in her master’s program because Vallejo prepared her for the work.

“She is like a role model for me,” said Gonzalez. “She has influenced me a lot. I think about me wanting to be a professor and she is like someone that I look up to and I ideally desire to be like her. Because she’s an amazing musician, and she’s really involved in different things in a good way … like with social justice stuff.”

Mariachi Los Broncos has performed during the California Faculty Association strikes and has recorded a song in collaboration with the artist No-No Boy, also known as Julian Saporiti.

Vallejo heard Saporiti’s folk song, “The Best God Damn Band in Wyoming” on Spotify while walking in Pomona. The song is about a real life Japanese American band whose members were interned during World War II and its lyrics reference Pomona.

Around the time she heard the album, Vallejo was asked by the mayor of Pomona to perform with her group Mariachi Lindas Mexicanas at the Fairplex in 2021 when it was an emergency intake center for migrant children.

The multilayered experience of performing at the Fairplex, which happened to be the 79th anniversary of when the site was used as an assembly center for Japanese Americans to be interned during WWII, culminated in an opportunity to explore themes of social justice and human rights.

“I was like, I have to cover this because it will just be such an awesome unit to teach in the mariachi class but also in my music of Mexico class,” said Vallejo. “It’s not an ensemble. It’s like an academic class. So, I was just really excited to dream up this whole lesson about history and social justice related to the song.”

She cold-called Saporiti and they collaborated on an arrangement. The remixed song “La Banda Más Chingón en Wyoming” was recorded separately by Saporiti in Portland, Oregon, Vallejo in Hollywood, California and Mariachi Los Broncos on campus.

Gonzalez recalled how the audio engineer, Tim Beken, of the indie band True North recorded him and his bandmates in a quiet room late at night on campus. The song can be found on the Smithsonian Folkways website.

As a continual scholar, Vallejo is part of the International Council for Traditions of Music and Dance in Latin America and the Caribbean. The international study group is a multilingual organization that meets at conferences all over Latin America.

In 2025, Vallejo has a sabbatical planned where she plans to analyze how mariachi improvise during gigs based on the size of the ensemble. She is interested in how varying ensembles affect the distribution of melody and plans to create a guidebook for musicians to increase the possibilities of improvisation in their performance.

Vallejo is a senator on the Academic Senate. According to Vallejo, one the proudest moments of her career is creating a permanent committee which got the Foothill Transit Silver Streak stop on campus.

A strong believer and user of public transit, Vallejo says transit improves the community and will help the average commuter who might have to leave sooner just to make it to class on time. According to Vallejo, the Foothill stop took the committee approximately seven years to complete.

“If people don’t pitch in, these things don’t get done,” said Vallejo. “They already move at a glacial pace anyways, so sometimes you need more help. I feel like pitching in how I can and helping to create the vision. Like, who else is going to do it for us? And so sometimes we’re our best advocates and I want to see a cleaner, less ableist campus and area. And so, I honestly feel like that’s been some of my most important work.”

Feature image courtesy of Piero F. Giunt. 

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