As members of Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlán come and go over the years, they may never quite realize just how much impact they have on our lives here in the United States. Not only do they inspire and influence students and entertain audiences beyond belief, but they help shape our American culture as we know it.
This is certainly the case with longtime Mariachi Vargas harpist Julio Martínez, who will officially retire from the group this December. As Julio wraps up his 23rd and final year with Vargas, he will participate in one last performance with the greatest mariachi in the world, bid farewell to his fans and begin the next chapter of his life.
Julio has had a stellar career with Mariachi Vargas and will always be remembered for his many outstanding recordings and his live performances throughout the world. Here in San Antonio, we will remember him most for his 23 years of participation in the Mariachi Vargas Extravaganza.
During Julio’s tenure in Mariachi Vargas, he has had a major impact on the role of the harp in contemporary mariachi music. “When I entered Vargas in 1995, the harp was considered a supplemental instrument used to reinforce the bass, play chords, and fill in occasional introductions or adornos that weren’t covered by the trumpets or violins,” Julio told Jonathan Clark in a recent interview. “It wasn’t an essential instrument, unlike when the group was founded in 1898. Back then, it was a foundational part of the ensemble… but over time, as more instruments were added, it gradually became relegated to the role of an optional instrument. Once I joined Vargas, people became aware of the possibilities of broader usage of the harp in mariachi music, and more opportunities opened up for it to be spotlighted,” he explains.
Julio has participated in a large number of recordings with Mariachi Vargas. Among those he is most proud of are El Cascabel, Carmentea and La Bamba — all which highlight the harp. It’s amazing how Julio can add such color and virtuosity to traditional mariachi songs. He captivates audiences by making each piece more spectacular than it had ever been before, and leaves them wanting more. Julio has played a key role in the increase in the number of mariachi groups with harp players we have seen during recent years.
“I first saw Julio Martínez with Mariachi Vargas in 1999 during the Mariachi Vargas Extravaganza in San Antonio,” says Abiel Hinojosa, Mariachi Director for Roma Middle School in Roma, Texas. “At the time, I was a high school freshman playing the guitarrón. After that first year, with the help of my mariachi instructor Yamil Yunes, I began to learn the harp. Julio was my main role model on the instrument. Because of him, in great part, I’m the mariachi educator I am today,” he says.
During the past 23 years, large numbers of youth have been impacted by Julio and his harp during the Mariachi Vargas Extravaganza. “When I first started giving workshops there with Vargas in 1995, I only taught a harpist or two,” says Julio. “But lately, I’ve had 20 or 25 harp students in those same workshops, an increase I consider significant. The popularity of the harp has increased greatly in the state of Texas and beyond,” he says. “Thanks to this festival, I’ve become known not only in Texas but throughout the United States. There are students who started with me in elementary school and are now full-fledged professional musicians, playing in fine groups, and often directing school mariachi programs,” says Julio.
Among those top students is Gabriela “Gabby” Fuentes. Currently the Director of Mariachi Education for Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools, Gabby recalls: “Back in my high school days, there were no local harpists in San Antonio; there was no internet, no videos,” she says recalls. “But there was the Mariachi Vargas Extravaganza, and in the fall of 1996, I attended, bright-eyed and disoriented! Another girl and I were taking Julio’s class together. She played a short harp solo for him, and my heart sank because I couldn’t do the same. I got nervous, but Julio smiled and told me not to worry. ‘That’s what I’m here for,’ he said.”
Julio, Gabriela, her husband Philippe and Pepe Martínez Sr.
“That day, Julio opened up an entire new world to me and helped me gain confidence. From that moment, I knew I would pursue a career in music education. Julio has been such an important part of my life. My teaching career and music philosophy are forever indebted to him,” adds Gabriela.
Highlights of Julio’s career with Mariachi Vargas include performances with the Jalisco Philharmonic, New York Symphony, Houston Symphony, Houston Grand Opera and Prague Symphony. He has also performed in Spain, in Japan, and throughout the U.S. and Latin America. He has put out six CDs of his own as soloist.
The Mariachi Vargas Extravaganza family is immensely grateful for the 23 years Julio has given us here in San Antonio as a performer, instructor and fountain of inspiration. We look forward to celebrating his grand finale performance in our Alamo City on December 2, where we invite everyone to join us in honoring this extraordinary artist.