Santa Ana homicide detective runs youth mariachi nonprofit, providing life-enriching outlet for kids


When Santa Ana Police Department Homicide Detective Eddie Nunez’s eldest daughter, Olivia, told him she wanted to learn and play mariachi music, he did what most parents would and signed her up with a music school.

However, Det. Nunez took it to a whole different level in 2015 when, in part to avoid a twice-weekly commute from his Inland Empire home, he created a nonprofit to start a school and band closer to home.

Since its formation, the nonprofit H.E.R.E.N.C.I.A. Mariachi Academy has evolved into a strong enterprise that has earned local and national attention.

In 2020, H.E.R.E.N.C.I.A. Mariachi Academy was named Nonprofit of the year by the Corona Chamber of Commerce.

Members of the nonprofit H.E.R.E.N.C.I.A. Mariachi Academy.
Photo provided by Eddie Nunez

In May, the band took fourth place in competition at the prestigious 40th Tucson International Mariachi Conference and Festival.

Det. Nunez is anything but your typical backstage dad. A 24-year veteran with the Santa Ana Police Department, he has worked some of the toughest details. He is currently a homicide detective and has also worked in the gang unit and the child abuse unit

Det. Nunez had no background in nonprofits and his musical experience is limited. Although he has tinkered with instruments and is a fan of music, his performance background was limited to folklorico dancing as a young man.

When he decided to form a music academy, Det. Nunez shot high. He recruited renowned mariachi vocalist and guitarist Rafael Palomar, formerly of the famed Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlán, as music director. Palomar is near the apex of mariachi royalty, having recorded with Linda Rondstadt, and is the son of Román Palomar, who is best known as the author/composer of the famous cumbia “El Mariachi Loco.”

“Everyone knows who he is,” Det. Nunez said.

The nonprofit H.E.R.E.N.C.I.A. Mariachi Academy provides a positive outlet for youth to learn music and culture. Santa Ana Police Department Homicide Detective Eddie Nunez founded the academy when his eldest daughter, Olivia, became interested in mariachi music.
Photo provided by Eddie Nunez

Well, not everyone.

“I had no idea who he was,” said Olivia Nunez, who sings and plays guitar and vihuela, a guitar-like instrument that is plucked like a lute. “He was just the guy who kept telling me when I played a note wrong.”

When H.E.R.E.N.C.I.A. Mariachi Academy attends festivals and competitions, Det. Nunez said other bands and groups often flock to Palomar and try to pull him away for pointers and lessons.

“He gets swarmed,” Olivia Nunez said. “Everybody wants his autograph and to take pictures with him.”

Olivia Nunez says Palomar is a very gentle but exacting teacher.

“He’s able to pick out small notes that are just a little off,” she said. “He doesn’t yell, but he does insist we get it right.”

In addition to offering instruction, Palomar also writes the music and arrangements for the group.

Traditional mariachi suits with and without botonadura (metal jewelry).
Photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge

Positive alternatives

Detective Eddie Nunez saw the band as an opportunity to get his daughter and other kids involved in a positive and enriching activity — not to mention keep them from unsavory diversions that try to attract kids.

“If we can do something to keep them occupied and teach them their culture instead of roaming around, I’d prefer that,” he said. “I’d rather put an instrument in their hands than a weapon.”

The nonprofit’s vision statement reads, “We want to help them channel their talents and express their emotions through mariachi music.”

Santa Ana Police Det. Eddie Nuñez talks about his work with the H.E.R.E.N.C.I.A. Mariachi Academy.
Photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge

Throughout his career, Det. Nunez has been particularly interested in providing guidance, mentorship, and positive role modeling for children and teens. He has worked with groups such as the Orange County Bar Foundation Project Youth a Nonprofit to try to help steer kids in positive directions.

“I see these kids, 12 and 13, and they’re in trouble,” Nunez said. “They’re disrespectful. These could be our kids.”

Olivia Nunez, 19, is now attending college, majoring in studio arts, and is the academy’s office assistance. She also continues to perform with the band on the guitar and the vihuela. Sofia Nunez, 12, followed her sister’s lead and now plays violin and sings with the band.

What’s in a name

“Herencia” translates into “inheritance” in English, which is appropriate when one thinks about the inheritance of culture that music provides. In the case of the band, it is also an acronym for Heritage, Education, Reach, Encourage, Nurture, Cultural, Inspire, and Accomplish, which pretty much covers its mission.

H.E.R.E.N.C.I.A. Mariachi Academy has grown its membership to about 75, down from 115 pre-pandemic, and has three instructors that work with novice and advanced students. Though the Academy started in the backyard, the group soon outgrew the space and now practices in a renovated space in Corona.

The nonprofit H.E.R.E.N.C.I.A. Mariachi Academy provides a positive outlet for youth to learn music and culture. Santa Ana Police Department Homicide Detective Eddie Nunez founded the academy when his eldest daughter, Olivia, became interested in mariachi music.
Photo provided by Eddie Nunez

In addition to competitions and festivals, the advanced band performs for a fee at birthdays, quinceaneras, weddings, holidays and retirements.

Running a nonprofit is a thankless and never-ending process, said Eddie Nunez, who constantly finds himself scrounging for funds and grants to support the band, help members with tuition, costumes and supplies, and pay instructors.

“If you don’t run it like a business, you fail,” he said.

This was particularly true during the pandemic and in its aftermath, as students are only now returning.

“It was really hard,” Olivia Nunez said of the pandemic. “We had to shut down for half a year. This was how we got our social networking. We really craved going back.”