Jose Carrillo, a first generation college student, will be graduating this semester with a bachelor’s degree in music education.

Carrillo was born in 1975 and raised in Zacatecas, Mexico. He first came to Albuquerque in 1991 as a teenager and brought an affinity for music with him, mariachi music specifically.

Carrillo said he first got involved in mariachi music through his family, but did not have the means to play when he was growing up.

“We come from a huge family and music has always been a part of our family — it’s like a tradition,” Carrillo said.

When Carrillo emigrated to the U.S., he got more involved in playing mariachi music.

“Mariachi music is just who I am,” Carrillo said.

As a high schooler, Carrillo said he dropped out to take care of his 13-member family.

“I was a straight-A student — I went to Del Norte High School in ‘92, just that one year, to learn enough English just to get by and then drop out,” Carrillo said.

After that, Carrillo said, he took on a variety of jobs — from working at restaurants to hard labor, Carrillo said he did it all.

By 2008, Carrillo said he became a U.S. citizen and four years later he earned his GED diploma. He said he expected to work at Lowe’s or Home Depot after receiving it, but instead he received an offer for a scholarship to pay for his first year of college at The University of New Mexico.

“At first I said, ‘Thank you, but no thank you,’” Carrillo said. “It’s something that caught me off guard — going to college is something that changes your life. It’s a life changing thing.”

However, after talking about it more with his wife Cinthia Carrillo and learning more about the scholarship, he changed his mind.

“We just stared at each other, a lot of things go through your mind,” Carrillo said. “I thought about it, ‘What if I go back?’”

Carrillo said the day he received the scholarship was the first day classes started. He signed up for intro classes during his first year.

“It was pretty tough — by the second year I became used to it and then I started loving it,” Carrillo said.

After getting through his prerequisite classes, Carrillo said he began to get involved in the music department at UNM. However, in 2015 when Carrillo was recruited to perform for an opera performance at UNM, he said he began facing issues toward his accent.

“They even said bad words in front of me,” Carrillo said. “UNM professors in your face telling you the F-bomb and what the F, whatever, out of frustration during rehearsal.”

Carrillo filed a complaint and the ordeal was settled. Despite facing issues regarding his nationality, he said he has had his share of success, such as starting the UNM Mariachi Lobo Club in 2013 and winning Lobo Talent in 2016.

In Albuquerque, Carrillo said, he performed music for commercials and across the national stage, he performed at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival in 2010 and during a visit for former President Bill Clinton in Old Town.

Other issues Carrillo said he faced at the University was the age difference and learning to read music, and he said he would not have made it without his support network from his colleagues, friends and his wife.

“That support would be financial because we were a little more financially stable since I graduated nursing school and had a better paying job,” Cinthia, the 2012 nursing undergraduate student said. “Of course there was emotional support and all kinds of support you need in school — you need that person to vent to or get your frustrations out.”

While Carrillo was getting his degree, Cinthia was taking care of their three children, and when Cinthia was going to school for her nursing degree, Carrillo was looking after the children.

“We work together as a team — somehow, I don’t know how, we have made it work over the last eight years,” Cinthia said. “It’s not easy.”

After graduating, Carrillo said he wants a job teaching mariachi music. Already he said he has received a couple offers — some in El Paso, Texas and some in Las Vegas, New Mexico — but he wants to start his own mariachi academy in Albuquerque.

“There’s a lot of talent for mariachi here — all those kids are craving to learn about mariachi,” Carrillo said.

Carrillo said he will be singing the Star Spangled Banner for the graduation ceremony on Friday, Dec. 14.

Anthony Jackson is photo editor for the Daily Lobo. He can be contacted by email at or on Twitter @TonyAnjackson.