The San Diego, California area hosted its annual mariachi festival from March 8-10, 2019. The four-day event included three days of workshops, concerts, and competitions held at the University of San Diego, culminating in an outdoor oceanside festival held at nearby Bayside Park.
Both headliner groups, Mariachi Los Reyes de Jorge Álvarez and Mariachi Los Aventureros de Juan Rodríguez, were brought in from Los Angeles. Invited artists included trumpet virtuosos Juan Manuel Arpero and Javier Rodríguez, and a magnificent mariachi trio led by renowned violinist and composer Sergio Caratachea. Los Reyes and Los Aventureros joined forces to perform “Wendy,” a composition specially written by Rigoberto Alfaro for the festival and dedicated to the wife of festival director Serafín Paredes.
Workshop instructors were Rigoberto Alfaro, Jorge Álvarez, Juan Manuel Arpero, Aldo Barbosa, Sergio Caratachea, Héctor Castro, Jonathan Clark, Bernardino de Santiago, Julio de Santiago, René Mejía, Fidel Alejandro Muñiz, José Alberto Muñoz, Javier Rodríguez, Juan Rodríguez, and Jorge Zapatero.
While this distinguished roster of maestros included numerous luminaries, for many the highlight of the event was the participation of guitarrón legend Berna Santiago.
Berna Santiago has the distinction of being the most recorded mariachi guitarronist in history. His extraordinary bass playing can be heard behind all the major ranchera artists active during the five decades of his career. Although his name rarely appears on recording credits, Berna is a living legend among knowledgable mariachi musicians and fans, many of whom know his name but have never seen him in person, or even in photograph.
The most prolific member of one of mariachi music’s most distinguished families, Bernardino de Santiago González — better known as Berna Santiago — was born in 1939 in the town of Guachinango, Jalisco, where his father, Cástulo de Santiago, played a five-string guitarrón. In the early 1950s, the Santiago family moved to Mexico City, where brother Mario played with Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlán. It wasn’t until after another brother, Nati, became Vargas’s guitarrón player in 1958 that Berna began studying that instrument.
Berna spent most of the decade of the 1960s paying his dues with mariachis in Mexico City restaurants. His first major group was Miguel Martínez’s Mariachi Tolteca, which he played with from 1968 to 1970, followed by 16 years with Pepe Chávez’s Mariachi Oro y Plata. For 18 years after that, he was a member of Mariachi Águilas de América, followed by stints with Mariachi México de Pepe Villa and other ensembles, up until his recent retirement.
Serious, quiet, and devoted to his art, Berna Santiago has always shunned the limelight, preferring instead to play a supporting role and keep a low profile. His only understudy is his son Enrique, who has been Mariachi Vargas’s guitarrón player since 1991, when he entered that group to fill the vacancy left by his late legendary uncle, Nati. Only on rare occasions has Berna agreed to teach students or participate in mariachi workshops, which made his participation in this year’s San Diego festival all the more noteworthy.
Before they attended the hour-long biographical presentation about him on Saturday morning, most workshop students hadn’t heard of Berna Santiago. But once they learned who he was, it seemed that everyone wanted to meet him, ask him questions, and take a photo with him. “They asked me lots of musical and technical questions,” affirms Santiago. “Unfortunately, many of these required lengthy explanations and demonstrations, and I simply wasn’t able to give them a complete answer on the spot. But the students were very talented and enthusiastic, and the event was well-organized,” he comments.
On this occasion, Berna was accompanied by his youngest son Julio. Many know Julio as the violinist in the wheelchair who has been with Mariachi 2000 de Cutberto Pérez for nearly 25 years. Participating as both performer and teacher, Julio was an inspiration to all, never for a moment allowing his handicap to be an impediment.
The current San Diego-area mariachi festival follows in the footsteps of a prior annual event that Mark Fogelquist organized between 2003 and 2008. In 2009, music teacher Serafín Paredes took the initiative to perpetuate that tradition by organizing mariachi workshops at San Diego High School. Six years later, he founded a mariachi program at the University of San Diego, and soon afterward the National City Chamber of Commerce climbed on board as festival sponsor.
“We expect this event to continue growing, both in number of students and in number of concertgoers. The more community support there is, the more motivation our students have,” says festival director Serafín Paredes.
Next year’s San Diego mariachi festival is scheduled for the first week in March, 2020. Consult www.mariachijuvenildesandiego.com for more information.
Winning mariachi groups
1st place: Mariachi Amanecer (Sunrise Mountain High School; Las Vegas, Nevada)
2nd place: Mariachi Miztli (San Ysidro High School; San Ysidro, California)
3 rd place: Mariachi Alma del Cañón (Canyon Springs High School; North Las Vegas, Nevada)