Sebastien De La Cruz, “El Charro de Oro,” will perform as guest artist for the 22nd Annual Mariachi Vargas Extravaganza on December 3rd, at San Antonio’s Lila Cockrell Theatre. This Q&A is from a recent interview with Sebastien that Jonathan Clark conducted in preparation for this event.
How old are you these days, Sebastien?
14 years old.
At what age did you begin singing?
At age 4 ½.
Where did you start?
I started here in San Antonio, at an school for young artists.
You didn’t sing before that in church or anything?
Oh, no, sir. Not at all. The stars were aligned. I was able to sing for a vocal teacher, without even knowing it.… I just happened to be touring that particular academy, and she asked me to sing for her. When I did, she asked me if I’d ever taken voice lessons before. My father told her no, and she said for me to get a vocal teacher right away. And that’s what I’ve been doing ever since. It was just me and my dad, and we were just touring an artist’s school for kids called Network for Young Artists, otherwise known as NYA.
And just by fate, one of the vocal teachers happened to see you, and asked you to sing for her?
That’s an amazing story! So before that, did you only sing at home?
No, I just played t-ball.
Okay, but what were you doing touring an arts academy in the first place? You must’ve had the idea to study there in the back of your mind, or else your father did.
The reason is because about three months before that, I had seen a group of mariachis playing at a fundraiser. It was like I had seen a band of angels. I ran home, and when I got inside the house I said, “Dad, I want to be a Mexican cowboy! Would you please promise me that you’ll take me to a Mexican cowboy school?” What I really meant was mariachi, but I didn’t know the name for it yet. I just thought it was a different kind of cowboy who sang and played instruments. And that’s what started me wanting to wear the charro suit.
And you didn’t think about whether you were going to sing or play an instrument?
No, sir. I just thought of it as fun, but it ended up being the gift that God wanted me to have, so I just stuck with it.
So what was the next step in your career?
The next step was getting together with my vocal teacher, Ms. Michelle Quintero. She’s been my teacher for 9 or 10 years now. I was enrolled in the academy for about two years, and since then, I’ve just been taking private lessons with her.
And what did that lead you to?
I participated in the Mariachi Vargas Extravaganza vocal competition when I was in fourth or fifth grade. I won third place, then I went back when I was in sixth grade, and that time I won first place. Then I won first place once again after that.
Did you perform with a live mariachi, or with a pista?
When was the first time you sang with a live mariachi?
The first time was when I went to Austin for an open competition. Mariachi Vargas selected me for the Best of Show Award there, and I got to perform with a live mariachi, opening for a Vargas show.
When did you start getting outside engagements?
It was mostly from people who would see me at the competitions, or would see me on YouTube, and they would call my father.
So those YouTube videos were important in promoting your career.
Yes, sir, they were.
And by the time you won your third Extravaganza competition, you were getting a lot of engagements.
Is your dad, Juan De La Cruz, your manager?
Yes, he’s the one who’s always managed my performances.
So when did your career really pick up?
It really picked up when I sang the national anthem for the NBA finals.
I remember watching that and being really proud of you, Sebastien. I also remember seeing the nasty comments people posted on Twitter afterwards. Looking back at that today, it really foreshadowed the kind of racist attitudes that this most recent presidential campaign would unleash only a few years later. Wouldn’t you say this situation has gotten a lot worse since then?
At this age, I’m not really big on politics; I don’t really pay a lot of attention to them. I just let everything be in God’s hands.
Well, I remember reading your replies to those racial slurs back then, and I thought you gave thoughtful, wise replies. You didn’t get mad or lower yourself to their level.
So how many times have you sung the national anthem in public?
I think over 100 times, easily.
That’s amazing! When was the first time you sang it?
The very first time was, if I remember correctly, for Debbie Ray Allen. She invited me to sing for the Endeavor shuttle that had just come back from outer space.
The NBA basketball tournament was a major turning point in your career, right? I mean, never had that many people seen you perform before.
Not even close.
So immediately after that, did you start getting invitations to sing in other places?
Yes, I did. I spent the entire week that followed in Miami, just doing interviews and television shows for Univisión and Telemundo.
Do you think that if there hadn’t been that racist backlash, they would’ve invited you to all those programs, or do you think it had to do with the controversy?
I think it was mostly about the controversy. It was mostly about how I carried myself, even after it happened.
I haven’t seen any of those TV interviews, but just from the online articles I read, I thought your answers were very mature.
Did somebody help you write to those or did they come spontaneously from you?
They just came naturally to me, and I just posted them. It wasn’t like I showed my dad a draft, and asked him, “Dad, is this okay?” It was just from the heart.
That’s interesting to know. I mean, before almost any public figure responds to anything like that out, they usually have their staff look at it first. But you came up with your own replies all by yourself. I think that’s really significant. So what was the next big break in your career after the NBA performance?
The next big break for me was getting into a little bit of acting. I was able to do an episode of a show by Eva Longoria that got canceled. It was called Telenovela with Eva Longoria. And then I was able to do a short film here in San Antonio with a guy named Daniel Maldonado, and also with Ricardo Chavira.
Are you doing any acting at the moment?
Right now I’m working on a couple of small acting projects that keep me busy and are real fun. I’m working on a film called The Margarita Man, and that’s going to be filmed here in San Antonio.
I heard you’re also working on a new CD.
It’s supposed to be released sometime in November, and we should have it out in time for the Extravaganza. It’s going to contain some original songs, and some of my favorites by other authors. Half of it is my favorite songs, cover songs. The other half is originals.
Who’s producing the record?
The people who are working on it are from Hollywood Studios, with Mack Damon, my father, and Baldemar Villarreal. Different arrangers participated.
What about accompaniment?
It’s all hand-selected musicians who I think represent the best in San Antonio, from my perspective.
Is it all mariachi, or does it contain other musical genres?
There’s one song in there that has a bachata feel, kind of a crossover. If they get the CD, they’ll be in for a treat, for sure.
But it’s mainly mariachi.
Yes, sir, mainly mariachi.
You’re opening for Mariachi Vargas this year at the Extravaganza. What can people expect to hear you sing? I assume you’re going to include material off your new CD.
I plan to sing at least two of my original songs, but the rest are going to be songs that are my favorites, and that I feel would be appropriate for the concert.
Can you give us any of the titles?
I’m going to keep it a secret, so it’ll be a surprise.
When you say original songs, do you mean your own compositions?
Some of them are by me and another writer writing together. I haven’t been able to write one fully by myself yet.
Who are your collaborators?
Baltimore Villarreal is one of them. Cassandra Trejo is another.
So what are you most grateful for, Sebastian, at this point in your life?
Just to be able to wake up every day and to use the gifts that God gave me to their fullest. Every day that I’m not in my grave, or someplace where I shouldn’t be, I feel that that’s a good day, no matter how it goes. I’m also grateful for all the support I’ve received from everyone in the mariachi community. It’s encouraging to know that everyone is behind me and to see how everyone gets together and supports each other, especially during the Mariachi Vargas Extravaganza.
What else would you like people to know about you?
I guess I’d like them to know that I’m a freshman at Wagner High School, and that I’ve been singing for 10 years. Oh, and that I’m a born and raised Spurs fan!
One more question for you. Has your voice changed yet?
Yes, it has.
Has that been a challenge for you?
No. sir. Not at all.
I know that with a lot of boys, even their speaking voice starts to crack sometimes.
Yes sir, that was me in sixth and seventh grade, and I still get little cracks here and there, because I’m in the final stages of that transition.
Did the voice change ever jeopardize your singing, or make it difficult to perform?
No, sir. In my performances, I use a lot of technique, and it was very rare that I would crack.
But I imagine you’ve had to change keys more than once since that started happening.
Yes, sir. I have.
One last thing: How come your name is spelled “Sebastien,” instead of “Sebastian”? Was that intentional?
That’s because I was named after a famous European tennis player. Before I was born, my parents were trying to come up with a name for me. One night while my dad was sleeping, he accidentally rolled over on the remote control, and a tennis tournament featuring French champion Sébastien René Grosjean came on the TV. My dad took this as a divine sign. He liked the name and the way it was spelled, and that’s the name they gave me.
At the on December 3 Mariachi Vargas Extravaganza concert, Sebastien will be accompanied by the award-winning Mariachi Aztlán from the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, performing under the direction of Francisco Loera. Tickets are available at Ticketmaster.com.
Check out the following YouTube videos by Sebastien:
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