Disclaimer: The writer is a former student of Crystal Vargas.

Photo courtesy of crystalpercussion.com.

Social studies teacher by day and star-studded percussionist at night: this is the life of Crystal Vargas.

Vargas, 40, is a teacher, percussionist, former coach, former Marist High School varsity baseball player–the only female on the team–and former member of the Puerto Rico National Team. But she doesn’t think much of her accolades, saying she’s “successful” because she loves what she does. She emphasizes that she is a product of where she comes from: a Puerto Rican family from the Greenville section of Jersey City.

“People of color are very proud of where they come from and it might not be from a great area, but you still rep it hard for whatever reason. I think that’s part of our culture–the fact that this is ours, and Hudson County, there’s just something special about it… I think we learn to love where we’re from…,” Vargas told Slice of Culture. 

“I’m from the Greenville section and it wasn’t the best area. There’s still parts of Greenville that still suffer from poverty…but people are still very proud. It’s their own… I’m really proud of where I come from.”

Finding Her Rhythm

Vargas’ first love was music–or more specifically, salsa.

Her father, Glen Vargas, was in a salsa band and by four-years-old, she had picked up the drums. By the age of six, she was a featured performer on “Sabado Gigante,” a Univision TV show, which in 2015 was named the longest running TV variety show, and on “El Show del Mediodia,” a Dominican daily program that features international artists.

(Courtesy of Crystal Vargas / Instagram)

Salsa originated from the 1960s and 1970s by Cuban and Puerto Rican immigrants in New York City. It’s dancing music with a blend of Afro-Caribbean sounds and is brought to life by instruments like the maracas (a hand percussion instrument), cuá (wooden sticks), bomba barrels (large drums) and congas (or tumbadora, a single headed-drum from Cuba) to name a few. Salsa serves as liberation for many Latinos in their daily lives as well as cultural identities.

“I was fortunate to be around a lot of musicians and there were many festivals in Downtown Jersey City [and] jam sessions, so it allowed me to develop as a musician over the years without really even trying, it just happened because we were surrounded by so much culture,” she said.

After performing with her father and her own band, No Limit, over the next decade, Vargas got her first big break during her senior year at Rutgers-New Brunswick, and it wasn’t even planned. Three-time Grammy-award winner Wyclef Jean was performing at the university where Vargas managed to sneak backstage; there she found and befriended Jean’s keyboardist, Robert Aaron, and ended the night by performing onstage with them. 

Jean was one of the founding members of Fugees, a hip-top trio founded in 1990 in South Orange, NJ. The name was shortened from “refugees” which consisted of Jean (born in Haiti, but grew up in Newark), Lauryn Hill (from Newark) and Pras Michel (of Irvington). The group is regarded as one of the pioneers of R&B and hip-hop while Jean and Hill are recognized as some of the most influential rappers of all time.

From there, Aaron’s friendship helped Vargas join artist Kat DeLuna’s band, whose 2007 hit song “Whine Up” had commercial success. She later met street drummer Jared Crawford, who told her to audition for Rihanna’s “What’s My Name?” featuring Drake, music video, which she jokes was her “eight seconds of fame.”

Vargas also performed on “Live! With Regis And Kelly” and alongside Paul Simon, Bernie Williams, Gladys Knight and Jill Scott, but she told Slice of Culture that her favorite gig was playing in a house band for BET’s “Black Girls Rock Awards Show,” which was a week long experience every year until the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“That was one of my favorite gigs because of who I was around. I was around powerful women who were on top of their game and then here I come [like] ‘Hey guys I’m an eighth grade teacher! How you doing! I’m gonna play my congas now!’” she laughed. 

“One of the things that I learned from the drummer–who performed with Prince and Beyonce–the first thing she said to me was, ‘Hey, you belong here. Don’t downplay who you are’… For someone of her status to say that to me, I felt [like] I’m gonna try to live up to that.”

Most recently, she did a video shoot with Latin star Thalía.

Connecting With The Youth

In 2010, when Vargas got the call for Rihanna’s music video audition, she was teaching at her alma mater Marist, which was located at 1241 John F. Kennedy Boulevard in Bayonne until it ultimately shut down at the end of the 2019-2020 school year. 

Vargas left Marist a couple of years before the closure, but continued teaching as an eighth grade civics teacher in Fort Lee. The Jersey City native, who “never thought music would turn into something,” got her master’s degree in elementary education from The College of New Jersey.

“I look at being a teacher as an opportunity everyday to tap into young people’s lives. I truly feel the love for teaching the same way that I did 18 years [ago]. That’s my indication that I can’t leave the classroom. It’s not only for me, it’s for the kids,” she said. 

“They teach me as much as I teach them… I feel pumped up going into the classroom the same way when I go into a gig.”

Nowadays, Vargas adds TikTok into the mix as an advantage to connect more with her students.

She has gone viral on TikTok a number of times, but her top posts include a 2021 percussion performance at a wedding, which has 2.2 million views and over 120,000 likes and a school trip to Boston where she pulled up alongside a busker and started hitting the buckets. The latter has 1.7 million views, over 460,000 likes and several articles written on it.

Aside from behind-the-scenes clips from wedding gigs or music video shoots, she posts funny content about her experiences in the classroom.

Hudson County Is ‘Used To’ Vargas

Throughout the years, Vargas always found a way to blend her passions for music, teaching and sports. 

After graduating from Marist as a three-sport athlete–soccer, bowling and baseball–she became a two-subject teacher in history and economics while being head coach of the girl’s softball team and running an after school club called Percussion Discussion.

Vargas told Slice of Culture she had to recently resign from coaching because her music career has taken off, forcing her to pick and choose what goes in her schedule. 

Vargas was a standout player at Rutgers-New Brunswick, which she attended on a softball scholarship. (Courtesy of NJCU Athletics)

Still, the former six-year Team Puerto Rico player said that sports is one of the biggest things that impacted her.

“There’s a lot of culture, there’s a lot of diversity and I found that in sports and in music,” Vargas said. “It shaped who I am today.”

According to an old interview, Vargas started playing baseball at six years old–the same time she started performing on TV shows–and never “made the switch” to softball. She played in the local Little League and Babe Ruth league. By the time she got to Marist, she was accepted onto the baseball team, though a later new coach tried moving her to the girl’s team, which she stubbornly told him she’s a “BASEBALL PLAYER.” 

Her new coach, Coach Klump, told her that “basically Hudson County is ‘used to’ Crystal Vargas playing baseball.” 

And this is where Vargas told Slice of Culture how supportive her community on the team and in Jersey City were. No one ever questioned why she was on the team; it only became an issue when they traveled outside of Hudson County.

She graduated from the private school with several awards including: All-County honors in soccer and bowling; NCIAA Player of The Year for academic and athletic excellence; and finished as co-captain of the varsity baseball team.

“I do what I love and it feels normal to me… and I don’t see it so much as ‘Oh wow, there’s so much success…’ If anything I consider myself successful because I love what I do and there’s so much joy in what I do and for me, that’s what I consider being wealthy,” Vargas said.

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