Originally published on March 1, 2019 at Texas Standard.
EDINBURG, TEXAS — This past March, at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley in Edinburg, high school students from all over the Lone Star State gathered for the 2019 UIL Mariachi State Festival. They displayed their skills for judges and peers, but for almost all of the attendees, this year’s festival represented something deeper.
The roots of mariachi music run deep in Texas. Mariachi has been a part of the curriculum at some schools and universities since the 70s. But 2019 marks the first year the University Interscholastic League officially sanctioned the festival, which is in its fourth year.
“At first I thought UIL would kind of mess it up because that are super strict,” says Marta Ocampo, mariachi director at Grand Prairie Fine Arts Academy in North Texas. “But it’s been well-organized and well-run and it’s been really great.
UIL is the governing body that creates the rules and hosts almost all athletic, musical and academic competitions for schools in Texas. The state mariachi program had been in a pilot phase for the last three years, though UIL competitions have previously been available at the regional level.
In El Paso, Americas School Mariachi Director Sergio Ramos escorted his students onto a bus at five in the morning the day before the competition.
“You know what It was a little tough, not gonna lie. It’s a little hard trying to get them going,” Ramos says.
The drive from El Paso down to the Valley with a bus full of high schoolers is not for the faint of heart. Though, Ramos says, even after a drive that took longer than it should have, he’s excited to be at the festival with his students and thankful UIL is taking mariachi seriously.
“I’m glad to see that mariachi is finally starting to become standardized and it’s being acknowledged as what it should be, as a high level performance ensemble,” he says.
In a state where more than half of students enrolled in public schools are Hispanic, the importance of cultural representation is not lost on Eloy Garza. The Roma High School mariachi director returned to his alma mater to give back to the community through music.
“Culturally,” Garza says, “It means a lot because it’s our roots. We teach our kids ‘hey, this is our roots this is representing where we come from. Representing our great music our great art of Mexico, our culture promoting it here in the U.S.’”
On the first day of the competition, Garza’s team begins to warm up. Each team gets exactly 15 minutes in a practice room directly before their performance.
Through the cacophony of practicing high school students, the melodies —rich in history and culture— start to stand out. In this room you hear the guitarrón, vihuela and guitar, harp, trumpets and the violin.
“This genre of music is really unique,” says UIL Musical Director Bradley Kent. “Because it comes from the same culture and providing this event allows the students that grew up in this culture to celebrate a tradition that has been passed down from generations in a lot of their families.”
The competition was held in three parts over two days with about 70 teams competing.
Roma Mariachi Director Garza says that though each ensemble is divided into sections, the key to a successful judge-pleasing performance is teamwork.
“Each judge will be focusing on a particular section of the mariachi,” Garza says. “Judging on intonation, interpretation, phrasing, blending with in sections the overall effect of the group.”
Daniel Renteria is the director of Rio Grande City High School Mariachi. He says that another main components the judges are looking for is “style.”
“Each song is done with a certain style. They are looking so that it is done justices to the style. For example, the first song that we play, that’s called a son jalisciense. That one has a traditional mariachi sound that all the judges are looking for,” Renteria says.
UIL Music Director Kent says there are several reasons they call it a mariachi festival and not competition.
“Well we use the festival format,” Kent says. “Essentially what that means is that we don’t rank the groups so we’re not crowning a state champion. The groups receive a rating so everyone has an equal opportunity to receive the top rating. We believe this encourages the growth and development more than ranking the groups top to bottom. Another reason is we don’t think that enough schools in the state have mariachi yet.”
However, for students in the festival, the thrill of performance and drive to be the best is not diminished by these rules—most are excited and some still have butterflies.
The atmosphere of the festival is more light and celebratory. The tingle of adornments on charro skirts and trousers fills the air. Students from opposing teams greet each other in passing with fist bumps and sombrero bumps, too. For many it’s like seeing old friends. Even directors greet one another with “Oye, compadre” and then gush about their students’ performances. There are many competitions, but this one gives the students something special, says Grand Prairie Fine Arts Academy Mariachi Director, Marta Ocampo.
“It’s the culmination of our performance year right now,” Ocampo says. “It’s the last one. It’s a great opportunity for us to not compete against others–but to show what we have done.”
At the festival, UIL Music Director Kent feels optimistic about the future of the event and mariachi in the state.
“We hope that the activity will continue to grow,” Kent says. “We’ve seen growth in the schools in Texas. More schools are offering mariachi in the curriculum. So we hope that will continue because in our opinion that is the most important part to why we are doing this. Is to help facilitate the grown and development of Mariachi in the schools.”
And right now that future sounds bright.