Music grad follows Maya heritage to UCLA


Juan Francisco Cristobal Music

Juan Francisco Cristobal, Class of 2016

  • Major: Music Education/Percussion
  • Received full Fellowship to UCLA's graduate ethnomusicology program
  • Performs with Marimba Espiritu Maya & ASU ensembles: percussion, steel drum, wind, drumline

Juan Francisco Cristobal's parents brought him to the U.S. from Guatemala when he was a baby, hoping their children would go as far as possible with their educations. For Cristobal, that will be the UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music's Department of Ethnomusicology, where he will pursue a Ph.D. in ethnomusicology – on a full fellowship. The UCLA faculty were so impressed with the research he submitted, "The Maya: The Antiquity and Colonial Music of the Maya World" they flew him to LA for an interview.

"I attended a conference on the Maya while there and am keeping in touch with a professor who works on the same subject," Cristobal said. When it comes time for his dissertation, he plans to research the marimba in the town where he was born, Santa Eulalia, Huehuetenango.

"UCLA is widely considered the top ethnomusicology program in the country and among the top five in the world. Juan's future is incredibly bright, and he's worked hard for all he's accomplished," said Dr. James Doyle, asst. professor of music. "Juan has taught our area quite a bit about the music of the Maya and, in particular, of Guatemala. The information I learned about the antiquity of the Maya was new to me, fresh research."

Cristobal's research interest began in a History of Music course in his junior year. "I wanted to study the New World and find out more about my ancestors," he explained. "The Conquistadors used music to convert the Maya. They introduced their own instruments from the Renaissance Period."

By exploring extant Maya hieroglyphs and artwork, Cristobal came to focus on indigenous instruments that are still used for ceremonies and celebrations, including maracas; the ocarina, which mimics bird sounds; pax (kettle drum); and pit (flute wooden). He presented his work at ASU's 2015 Student Scholar Days.

Cristobal said he pursued a degree in music education and percussion in order "to teach the young Guatemalan/ Maya children about instruments and a cultural tradition that should not be lost." He's already begun teaching his younger brothers the marimba, which he has played since the ninth grade.

He also has a sister who's attending Adams State. He did some of his student teaching in a bilingual class. "It was an amazing experience getting to know and work with the kids and collaborate with the music teachers."

Cristobal's journey from Guatemala to UCLA was neither easy, nor direct. He didn't learn to speak English until kindergarten, and didn't read music until he came to Adams State. Instead, he taught himself to play a number of instruments – guitar, keyboard, bass guitar, drum set, and Guatemalan marimba – all by ear.

He enrolled in developmental courses at the start of his ASU education and benefitted from the GEAR UP and Colorado Challenge programs for low-income, first generation students. Last summer, Colorado Challenge recognized him for his perseverance and accomplishments. "Without their help, I don't think I'd have been able to come to college."