PARK CITY, Utah — Watching the documentary Going Varsity in Marachi at this year’s Sundance Film Festival filled me with pride. I’ve never played a single one of the instruments featured, I can’t sing, and I’m not from the Rio Grande Valley, but as a Chicana, the film spoke to me about the beauty, importance, and history of our community. It plants a flag, centering Mexican American culture as we produce it on this land we now call the United States.
It was fun to see the film take Sundance, with cast and crew rocking Going Varsity in Mariachi letter jackets around Park City’s Main Street and a premiere party sponsored by Acura featuring birria tacos and a live mariachi performance. Chicanxs are taking up space—and I love to see it.
The film’s two Mexican American directors, Alejandra Vasquez and Sam Osborn, tell Latino Rebels that the film came out of an earlier short they made, in which they realized the story had everything they needed to make a full-length film. Asked to describe Mariachi, Vasquez and Osborn say, “It’s music… It’s coming of age… It’s competition… It’s exciting.” Vasquez sums it up with “It’s Latino.”
And Going Varsity in Mariachi is all of those things, as the film follows Edinburg North High School’s Mariachi Oro ensemble as they compete against other South Texas schools for the state championship.
Mariachi is unique in how it extends weight, care, and seriousness to music education. With this documentary, Vasquez said, the two directors wanted to show “how important the fine arts are and how important fine arts education is.” Over the course of the film, the students “learned how to find their sound, they learned what that means—and that means working together. And that means practicing together. And that means showing up for one another.”
And of course, learning mariachi isn’t just music education—it’s culturally specific music education, something Osborn calls “a value.”
“The kids come from a variety of different connections to their culture—some speak Spanish, some translate for the parents, some don’t know Spanish at all,” Osborn explained. “And at the core of (mariachi programs) is finding your footing culturally, which is hard. I grew up not really having a really strong footing in my Mexican background, and being part of this movie really helped. And if I had this in my high school, I really would have been far more connected to it by the time I graduated.”
This is a movie about finding and honoring one’s Mexican culture, a journey the filmmakers and its subjects go on together—through music, no less. And that mutual understanding and respect shine through the film, which throws out any preexisting notions about its young subjects—down to their social status in high school.
As a former band kid myself, I’m distrustful of portrayals of high school music education. Films like Mr. Holland’s Opus focus on the teacher, while American Pie eviscerated a certain type of band kid. But in my school, all sorts of kids played in the band, and that diversity is reflected in this film.
In Mariachi Oro, “there was the cool kids or the popular kids, the nerds, the more jockey-type kid,” said Vasquez.
“And then just the band people,” Osborn added. “There were people who their whole social circle was mariachi… And they all got along. There were no cliques.”
So while it may be time to retire the band-nerd stereotype, I’m not going to tell you that there isn’t something distinct about competitive high school bands, a subculture as interesting and as organized as football. And Going Varsity in Mariachi lifts up one of its important tenets: acceptance.
Like most high school films, this movie has its central couple—the young lovers both just happen to be Latinas. They may worry about how their gayness plays more largely in Texas, but Mariachi Oro is not a site of judgment. If anything, they’re the ensemble’s golden couple, with one of the two being the armonia section leader.
All of which combines to make a deeply affirming film. For Mexican American viewers, Vasquez hopes “they see themselves in these kids. I hope that they see the value in the music and… feel seen.”
For those outside the culture, Osborn wants them to see value in the art form as well. “Mariachi music is more than a Mexican restaurant novelty,” he said. “It’s more than just Epcot Center. It has real cultural roots. It’s an art form.”
Now doesn’t that make you want to practice your grito?
A writer and activist, Cristina Escobar is the co-founder of latinamedia.co, uplifting Latina and gender non-conforming Latinx perspectives in media. She’s a member of the Latino Entertainment Journalists Association and writes at the intersection of race, gender, and pop culture. Twitter: @cescobarandrade