'Born Singing at the Top of My Lungs': UArizona Student Brings Her Culture to Song and Screen

man and woman in a kitchen

Martin Martinez, who played the lead role of Gordo in the film "Tesoro," sets up a scene with University of Arizona student filmmaker Roxanna Denise Stevens Ibarra.

Luis Gonzales


Roxanna Denise Stevens Ibarra was born into a musical family and picked up the hobby quickly, but not quietly.

"My whole family loves karaoke, so I was born singing at the top of my lungs," said Stevens Ibarra , a senior in the University of Arizona's Fred Fox School of Music. "I didn't know what singing well was; I just knew that louder was better."

Initially, music was a hobby for Stevens Ibarra. Going to school in Tucson and spending summers with family in Mexico, she didn't see a practical path to making a career out of the arts. One of three children raised by two parents who grew up in Mexico, Stevens Ibarra wanted a career that would allow her to help support her family.

"I grew up seeing my dad work really hard selling and delivering charcoal and coming back covered in dust," Stevens Ibarra recalls. "My mom had to hose him down outside. It didn't seem practical for me to go into music. I felt like it would be almost disrespectful, given the work my parents put in."

Roxanna Denise Stevens Ibarra

Stevens Ibarra graduated with a bachelor's degree in film and television in the spring of 2020, and will complete her music education degree in December.

Carlos Moreno/Campus Brand Engagement

Her outlook changed during her search for a college. Her auditions and applications to study music and film and television at the University of Arizona attracted scholarship offers that made a future in fine arts more viable.

Stevens Ibarra graduated with a bachelor's degree in film and television from the School of Theatre, Flim & Television in the spring of 2020, and will complete her music education degree in December.

Telling Stories Through Music

Stevens Ibarra traces her love of music to her great-grandmother, who was a Holocaust survivor. Despite hardships, her "GG," as she is affectionately known, found a way to keep family traditions and stories alive by sharing music she had memorized that had been passed down through generations. That music ultimately reached Stevens Ibarra, who was inspired to take piano lessons before ultimately settling on violin, which is her instrument of choice.

Stevens Ibarra faced hurdles in her music education, due in large part to underfunding at her high school. She found herself practicing on borrowed instruments, but thanks to what she calls "an insane amount of intervention" from a handful of teachers who recognized her talent and passion, she was able to achieve her goals.

Stevens Ibarra hopes to pay that help forward to students of her own. She is now finishing her student teaching requirements through UArizona and has accepted a full-time teaching position at Wakefield Middle School in Tucson.

One way to cultivate appreciation for music's rich and diverse history, she says, is to show students how music passed down through different cultures impacts what they listen to today.

"Students, for example, are not learning nearly enough about sub-Saharan African drum rhythms, but they most certainly are learning about Mozart," she said. "Students aren't rocking out to Mozart. They're listening to Cardi B and singing along to Tobi Lou. They're adapting to this new form of rhythm in music, which is derivative of sub-Saharan African rhythms. We're not learning about something that we're hearing all the time, but we're learning about Mozart."

'Seeing Myself on Screen'

Stevens Ibarra grew up embracing her family and community traditions, but she noticed she was not seeing people who looked like her or her family on television or in movies. Mexican culture was being depicted, she says, but not accurately.

"It's normally Mexican drug cartels or novellas where some beautiful blonde woman and a buff white guy are together on a horse," she said. "That's not something I know. I've never really seen my family represented on the screen."

Stevens Ibarra set out to change that with her UArizona senior thesis film "Tesoro," about an elderly man reliving his memories as he prepares to sell his car to make ends meet. She said the film is, in some ways, a collage of snippets from stories her family would tell.

"Tesoro," which premiered during the UArizona School of Theatre, Film and Television's 2020 I Dream in Widescreen student film showcase, has since been selected for inclusion in nine film festivals, including two prominent festivals in New York this month: the New York Latino Film Festival from Sept. 14-19 and the Academy Award-qualifying Urbanworld Film Festival from Sept. 29-Oct. 3.

Film will continue to be a part of Stevens Ibarra's professional journey in addition to music. She recently accepted a position as a film critic with the Santa Barbara International Film Festival, a role in which she will review film submissions for the festival. Stevens Ibarra said she hopes "Tesoro" and the other art she creates in her career can shine a spotlight on the authentic Hispanic culture that she lives and loves.

"For too long, we've been considered an anomaly rather than part of a diverse, rich culture. It's become lonely," Stevens Ibarra said. "I think that's why I've decided to become louder about it. I feel like it's a personal responsibility to make my culture accessible through the art that I create."

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