By: Leon Camacho – Associate at Muñoz Public Relations, Producers of the Mariachi Vargas Extravaganza.
It was February 15, 2020, minutes before the show. We were waiting backstage in one of the most prestigious venues in the world –The Concert Hall of the Chicago Symphony Center. I took a quick look at the audience through the small window on the door that led to the stage and not a single seat was empty. More than 2,300 people had purchased tickets to experience the sound and showmanship of Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlán, the best mariachi in the world. You could hear the eagerness of the crowd ready to be amazed by Mariachi Vargas. I can assure you however, not a single soul in the hall had expectations for the little 8 year old girl and the student mariachi that opened up the show that night.
Rewind to December 2019, just a few months earlier at the 25th Annual Mariachi Vargas Extravaganza in San Antonio, TX. At just eight years old, Kaylee Bucio of West Jordan, Utah was selected by the best mariachi in the world, Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlán as the overall Grand Champion winner of the MVE National Vocal Competition. Kaylee, in her first time competing at the Mariachi Vargas Extravaganza, beat out 41 other vocal competitors from the Elementary to College categories to earn the prestigious Grand Champion title and a chance to open for Mariachi Vargas that night at their big show in San Antonio. Little did she know that winning Grand Champion would grant her the opportunity to travel all the way to Chicago to perform at the Chicago Symphony Center! Little did I know, I was about to embark on the journey with her.
During her performance at the Extravaganza, Kaylee was accompanied by a pista –audio recording– of an orchestral arrangement of her award winning song Granada. Normally, a live mariachi accompanies the Grand Champion on stage, but due to the complexity of the song and timing of the situation, the producers of the Extravaganza allowed her to use the pista. However, a pista was not going to do justice to what a live mariachi sounds like, especially if she was to perform in the Chicago Symphony Center. This meant that we had to find a mariachi group based out of Chicago that would be willing to accompany her. Alvaro Obregon, President and Founder of the Chicago Mariachi Project, attended the 25th Annual Mariachi Vargas Extravaganza and had seen Kaylee perform at the Lila Cockrell Theater. So we reached out to Alvaro and found the perfect fit – The Chicago Mariachi Project, a community mariachi program made up of students from different schools in the city. The group had opened up for Mariachi Vargas in the past in Chicago and Alvaro was more than happy to have his group accompany Kaylee. All left to do now was prepare and pack for what was going to be one of the coldest weekends of our life.
We arrived in Chicago on Thursday, February 13. I flew in from San Antonio and Kaylee and her mother from Salt Lake City, Utah. I had heard Kaylee sing at the Extravaganza but this was the first time I was meeting either of them in person. We met at baggage claim, and unlike myself at the age of 8, Kaylee had a very charismatic and extroverted personality. Her mother could not thank us enough for bringing them to Chicago. I called us an Uber to our hotel, and the 15 second walk from the airport doors to the car was enough to freeze the muscles in our faces and hands. The city was covered in snow. Chicago was 10°F that afternoon and it was only going to get colder. I asked Kaylee and her mother if this was normal to them since they live in Utah, but even for them this was a bit too cold. On our way to the hotel I explained to them the itinerary for the days to follow. Kaylee had an interview early morning the following day as well as a couple of rehearsals with the Chicago Mariachi Project. Once we arrived at the hotel, I proceeded to check us in. We stayed at the Palmer House, a historic hotel in downtown Chicago. All three of us agreed that this was the most beautiful hotel we had ever stayed in.
The following morning we were up by 4:00 AM and Chicago was -2°F. Kaylee was scheduled to appear on Noticias Univision Chicago to promote the show. Once at the station someone greeted us and gave us a run down of the interview – 2 minutes of questions, no singing. Kaylee and I were then escorted to the studio with Diana Perez, the host of the show. There were cameras and lighting equipment everywhere. To many this might have been intimidating, but Kaylee kept calm as if she had done this a million times. She sat down with Diana, someone gave a countdown, and then the interview started. She was a natural. She was even asked to sing, which we did not prepare for, and she nailed it. After everything was done, the production assistant of the show came up to us and said, “I’m surprised they let her go on for 5 minutes, that never happens here!” Kaylee smiled and humbly thanked everyone for having her on. Full interview
It was still early when we left the news station. We grabbed a quick bite at a breakfast joint downtown and then headed back to the hotel to rest. Later that same day we headed to Benito Juarez Academy to rehearse with the Chicago Mariachi Project. To our surprise, the Uber driver that took us there had watched Kaylee’s interview on Univision that morning and congratulated her for an excellent performance. When we arrived, we were greeted by Alvaro Obregon, founder and President of the Chicago Mariachi Project. While we waited for all the students to arrive, Alvaro gave us a short history lesson of the Benito Juarez Academy. The building that is also a High School and community center was the first school in Chicago to be named after a Mexican president. It was designed by a Mexican architect who implemented features similar to those of the Aztec pyramids. You can also see a variety of murals on the walls of the building that depict Mexican history and culture. Once everyone arrived we started rehearsal. We were running against the clock since the mariachi also had to practice other pieces they were going to perform. This was the first time Kaylee performed Granada with a live mariachi, so we were all somewhat nervous about how she was going to adapt. At first there were a couple of timing issues, but after a couple of runs they all had it down. It was a short but productive 20 minute rehearsal. We still had a rehearsal the next morning, so we all felt confident about their performance.
That same night, Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlán performed in the Hill Auditorium at the University of Michigan to a sold out crowd of over 3,000 people. After their performance they got on their tour bus and drove straight to Chicago. At 4:00 AM the following morning the bus arrived at the Palmer House.
Early that morning we took an Uber back to Benito Juarez Academy for a final rehearsal. As we entered the room, the mariachi was already playing through the song. Kaylee warmed up her voice with the help of her vocal coach who joined us that morning, and quickly joined the group. Just as expected, they sounded even better than the day before. No timing issues this time around. After rehearsal all that was left to do was to get back to the hotel and get ready.
I had seen pictures of the Chicago Symphony Center Concert Hall before, but there is nothing like being there in person. The lights and the architecture of the place make the whole experience surreal. Kaylee and the Chicago Mariachi Project held a quick sound check in the Concert Hall before the show and the acoustics of the venue made them sound fantastic. After the sound check I took Kaylee, her mother, and vocal coach to their dressing room. The rooms were just as great as the hall itself. Each room had its own mini grand piano for performers to practice before shows. Twenty minutes before the show I escorted Kaylee backstage and her mother and coach left to find their seats in the audience. It was now time for the big performance.
Once backstage, I waited with Kaylee and the Chicago Mariachi Project while the show started. One of the members of the mariachi asked Kaylee if she was nervous. “All you have to do is pretend you’re singing to your family!”, she responded with a smile on her face, “Also, my mom always gives me a blessing before I perform so everything goes okay.” We were all touched at her response. The kids even asked her if she could give them a blessing. Kaylee happily nodded and blessed them one by one. At that same moment Alvaro Obregon from the Chicago Mariachi Project was on stage greeting the crowd and saying some opening remarks before starting the show. “Now please help me welcome the Chicago Mariachi Project!” he said, and that was their cue. The stage door opened and Alvaro hurried the kids on stage. The crowd was cheering and eager to hear some mariachi music.
While the mariachi played their set, Kaylee and I sat and watched the show through some monitors they had backstage. They played three songs and the crowd responded with cheers and applause. Alvaro opened the stage door, looked at Kaylee and said, “You’re next!”. He introduced her to the audience and she walked on stage. What followed were three and a half minutes of pure greatness. You could hear people in the audience gasping in awe as she entered the spotlight. Every move she made was so natural but precisely calculated. She walked the stage gracefully and was able to keep the audience fully engaged. Her tuning and dynamics were on point. 2,300 people erupted in applause before she even hit the last note. I’d seen her do it once in San Antonio, but could not help to react as if this was the first time. The crew and other people backstage were just as stunned and some even in tears. Mariachi Vargas could not have picked a better opening act.
Needless to say, Mariachi Vargas’ performance was stellar and the crowd gave them a standing ovation in return. As people exited the venue, Kaylee waited in the lobby to thank everyone for coming. People rushed to take pictures with her and some even asked for her autograph. Shortly after we escorted her back to the hotel. Our weekend in Chicago could not have ended any better. Early the next morning we headed back to the airport. Once in the terminal, Kaylee shot a quick video thanking everyone that made her trip to Chicago possible. After that, we wished each other farewell and boarded our respective flights home.
Kaylee Bucio along with the kids from the Chicago Mariachi Project accomplished something that night that many of us dream of. They stood on one of the world’s greatest stages to share their passion while performing the music they love for thousands of people. It might be as simple as signing up to a community mariachi program, or as hard as proving yourself in a National Vocal Competition where the odds are stacked against you. Nonetheless if you do it with passion you will get there regardless.