U.S. first lady Michelle Obama honored the work of a dozen projects promoting the development of art and the humanities in education, notably the Paso Nuevo/New Step bilingual school of theater, and a program for preserving mariachi music.

Trumpets and guitars were played with youthful power by a group of students in the Mariachi Master Apprentice Program of San Fernando, California, founded by the Grammy-winning band Los Camperos.

This initiative was one of those honored with the National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Award, presented by the first lady in the White House East Room.

Mrs. Obama, honorary chair of the President's Committee on the Arts and Humanities, expressed her gratitude for the work of artists, instructors and educators working with tightened budgets so these programs can continue helping new generations of young people acquire skills that "aren't just valuable in the studio or in the theater, but they are critical in the classroom and will be in the workplace."

"You are pushing and inspiring our kids," she said. "You're revealing their boundless promise, and teaching them to believe in themselves."

The first lady also noted during her speech the power of art to transform youths and urged the young people at the reception to do everything possible so that others can have the same opportunities they have enjoyed.

Ready to do just that was Estefanny Espinosa, 18, daughter of Mexican immigrants, who said that "it's incredible how little kids see us as an example and start learning culture that, if they didn't, they wouldn't learn any other way."

Speaking on behalf of the prizewinners, 15-year-old Starr Arroyo of the New York Urban Debate League said that this initiative has given her the confidence to speak and "dream big" like her heroines, including fellow Bronx-native Sonia Sotomayor, who became the first Hispanic justice of the Supreme Court.

She also pointed to another Hispanic project, Paso Nuevo/Next Step, in which youths 12-18 learn acting techniques like the use of voice and movement, develop their creativity within an atmosphere of collaboration, and strengthen their self-esteem. EFE