It’s December 7th, 2019 and the 25th Annual Mariachi Vargas Extravaganza National High School Group Finals are about to take place. Of over 25 high school groups that competed the previous night, the top 7 await their chance to compete again for Mariachi Vargas. Each student performer knows that winning the elusive 1st place title doesn’t only earn them bragging rights, it also means that they will get to open for the world famous Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlán at the grand gala concert in the evening! That in its own is icing on the cake but the prize this year contained an element that had never been offered before in Mariachi Vargas Extravaganza history. This year’s prize for the 1st place high school group included the added bonus of an all-expense paid trip to open for Mariachi Vargas in February 2020 at the prestigious Hill Auditorium in Ann Arbor, Michigan!
As each of the top 7 high school groups took the stage, a unique thunder of energy filled the Lila Cockrell Auditorium. One group in particular however was on a very unique mission, this day would be the day to take back their 5x National Champion title.
The last group up is Mariachi Nuevo Santander of Roma High School. As the MC announces their name they walk on stage with their chins up and radiant smiles, their presence is one of determination and assuredness. Lead violinist Ernesto Saldaña brings in the group and in those first five notes magic has already started to happen. “San-tan-der, ha llegado su mariachi…” from their Tema energizes the auditorium as they transition into the song El Coleadero. The audience cheers them on and they begin their final song El Siquisiri. Featuring tremendous harmonies from nine vocalists and solos from each instrument section this piece is the crown jewel that threw their performance to the top of the leaderboard. This performance is what earned them back their title naming them champion of the Mariachi Vargas Extravaganza National High School Group Competition and the life-changing opportunity to spend a week long artist residency with the University Musical Society (UMS) in Ann Arbor, MI.
“For months the whole mariachi had been putting a major amount of hard work and dedicated time to earn this achievement, and thankfully we were able to accomplish it” explained Sophomore Francisco Garcia, Jr. “Not only was it my first time experiencing a 1st place win at the Mariachi Vargas Extravaganza, but it was also the first time I realized that hard work does actually pay off. The satisfaction of winning and demonstrating to everyone that our mariachi group really put in the work to earn the victory is something I’ll never forget.”
“As soon as we heard “Nuevo Santander”, we all stood up and hugged the person nearest to us with tears in our eyes. All of our hard work and dedication proved to be worth it in that moment” said Junior Julie Hernandez.
On February 9th, 2020, prepared for the life changing trip that awaited them, the sixteen members of Mariachi Nuevo Santander and their three directors flew from the Rio Grande Valley to begin their week long UMS residency in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Some might ask, what exactly is UMS? Housed on the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor campus, UMS is recipient of the 2014 National Medal of the Arts and one of the oldest performing arts presenters in the United States. Dedicated “to inspire individuals and enrich communities by connecting audiences and artist in uncommon and engaging experiences”, UMS is committed to connecting audiences with performing artists from around the world, and their Education and Community Engagement staff had a full week of activities planned for Mariachi Nuevo Santander throughout the Ann Arbor, Flint and Detroit areas.
As the bus arrived on February 10th to pick us for our first day of activities the students from Nuevo Santander, with instruments in tow, were nervous but readily awaited to see what was in store for them. First up in Ann Arbor was an Engaging Performance for undergraduate students at the University of Michigan at the Michigan Union building. As Mariachi Nuevo Santander gave an interactive presentation, Director Eloy Garza explained the history of mariachi music and its significance to both the Mexican and Mexican-American cultures. During the Q&A session, Michigan students were eager to learn more about the mariachi culture, what it takes to have a successful mariachi school program and what qualified Nuevo Santander to be named the best high school mariachi at the Mariachi Vargas Extravaganza.
Our journey continued an hour away in Flint, MI at Educare-Flint. As the excited preschoolers filled the atrium you could hear ooo’s and ahhh’s as they spotted Nuevo Santander. The mariachi began to play and a pure sense of fascination filled the air with an energy of love that only children know how to give. Truly a beautiful moment, the Educare kids began to dance along and even got up to give their favorite members hugs as they sang. When the performance wrapped up, it was time for Nuevo Santander to have some fun in their few minutes of free time as they took advantage of the snow covered playground to do the one thing you cannot do in South Texas, HAVE A SNOWBALL FIGHT!! As they enjoyed tossing snow at each other and inspired by the beautiful snow blanketed scenery, a few students wondered where Elsa from the Disney movie Frozen was and broke out singing tunes like “Do You Want to Build a Snowman?”.
Later that evening, after a tour of the University of Michigan-Flint campus, UMS hosted a dinner/performance exchange for Nuevo Santander, El Ballet Folklorico Estudiantil and the Flint Mariachi. Shy at first and never having participated in a jam session before, Nuevo Santander broke the ice as they started to play La Negra and bring everyone together in song and dance. As both mariachi groups played and the folklorico danced along, everyone had so much fun that even the Nuevo Santander directors got in on the action by picking up instruments and singing along. That night set the tone for the rest of the trip with the passion for mariachi connecting everyone and proving that music is a universal language that knows no borders.
Bundled up and ready to go, Wednesday took us to Detroit where a full day of tours, rehearsals and performance awaited us. As we entered the world-renowned Detroit Institute of Art (DIA), we visited art that most will only ever get to see in books or online images. As we admired works from Van Gogh, Picasso and Matisse, the star of the DIA laid in the Rivera Court where Nuevo Santander took a picture with the “Detroit Industry”, 27 frescoes by Mexican muralist Diego Rivera which he considered to be his best work ever. On our private tour of the Michigan Opera Theater (MOT) we learned the ins and outs of the opera house, listened in on an opera rehearsal and got to sing on stage and hear the perfectly balanced acoustics. At the request of trumpet player and baseball fanatic Juan Garcia Jr., we stopped for a quick picture right across the street from the MOT at Comerica Park, home of the Detroit Tigers.
As we drove to rehearse with the Ballet Folklorico de Detroit, who would be accompanying us that evening and at the Friday concert, I pointed out the highway sign to the kids that said “Bridge to Canada” and everyone was in shock! No one could believe that just two days ago they had traveled from a town that borders Mexico all the way to being miles from the border of Canada on the other side of the country. That evenings performance took place at La Terraza restaurant where, conquering a new fan base, Mariachi Nuevo Santander had audience members singing along and cheering as they performed for 90 minutes. As everyone exited the restaurant ready to head back to the hotel a feeling of amazement overtook the kids as their eyes lit up to see snowflakes falling from the night sky, a perfect ending to an awesome day.
By 8:00 AM Thursday morning the snow continued to fall as Nuevo Santander excitedly boarded the bus to Hill Auditorium alongside Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlán for their “School Day Performance” where they showcased their talents for over 3,000 Ann Arbor/Detroit area students. Following the performance we were treated to a tour of the Michigan campus by representatives from the various U-M Latin American student organizations. Nuevo Santander were so awestruck by the picturesque snowy campus as we walked around in the 20° weather that photos were a must and at times we stopped at what seemed like every snow covered tree to take a snapshot. At dinner that evening students participated in ice breakers and were encouraged to get out of their comfort zones and apply in their senior year to Michigan. As one of the top 5 public universities in the country, Latin American students explained to them that there was a community at Michigan who they could identify and share their “latinidad” with.
As the most culturally diverse school in Ann Arbor, Scarlett Middle School teamed up with UMS to create a five week lesson plan where the whole school learned about the Mexican culture. With help from Evelyn Daughtery, students from the band, orchestra and choir programs learned the classic mariachi song Cielito Lindo which was arranged by Evelyn and her Grammy award winning father Michael Daughtery. Scarlett students, alongside Mexican-American muralist & UMS teaching artist Elton Monroy Duran, painted a special mariachi mural inside of the cafeteria to commemorate the event. As Nuevo Santander walked onto the Scarlett campus that Friday morning they were given the warmest welcome and were all amazed to see handmade posters of themselves hanging throughout the school announcing their performance. Prior to the trip the entire mariachi recorded an introduction video of the members and each Scarlett student already knew their names and knew exactly what their hobbies and interests were. Mariachi Nuevo Santander were basically rock stars!
Used to being the classroom students, they would now turn into the teachers as they led the final classes on Cielito Lindo before the afternoon school assembly. Taking charge, the members of Nuevo Santander decided which of them would teach choir, band and orchestra and broke into the different classrooms. It was incredible to see how each member easily slipped into leadership roles. As you entered the student assembly the audience was filled to the max with students, teachers, parents and media cameras. After aweing the audience with a few songs, the mariachi was honored by the school as they sat back and listened to the three groups play Cielito Lindo. Filled with pride Nuevo Santander then got up and played Cielito Lindo alongside the band, orchestra and choir closing out the assembly with a bang! As everyone finished the students of Scarlett ran to get pictures with their favorite members and tell them how they had the same likes or hobbies. Seeing as it was Valentine’s Day, a couple of Nuevo Santander members even received boxes of chocolates from their admirers.
Senior violinist Arely Molina couldn’t believe the impact of the Scarlett event. “Never would I have thought that mariachi music would be shared with kids who are across the country that not only didn’t speak Spanish but probably didn’t even know what mariachi was” she explained. “There were a lot of emotional moments especially when we heard the students sing and play Cielito Lindo for us, just a couple of kids from Roma, TX. I am grateful I got to experience this firsthand, the radiant joy and all of the hugs that I received were so memorable and are still fresh in my mind.”
Later that evening Mariachi Nuevo Santander opened for Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlán to a sold out crowd of 3,500 concertgoers. Opening the show with El Jarabe Tapatio and a medley of Jalisco/La Bamba alongside Ballet Folklorico de Detroit, they ended their set by playing their award winning show from the Mariachi Vargas Extravaganza. The roar of cheers saturated the auditorium as Nuevo Santander hit those last notes of their set and brought the audience to their feet in applause. At the end of the concert Mariachi Nuevo Santander joined Mariachi Vargas on stage to play La Negra. No one could have asked for a better ending to Valentine’s Day than winning the admiration of 3,500 people.
As this unforgettable journey came to an end on Saturday, February 15 there was still one more performance left on the calendar at UMMA (U-M Museum of Art). As the mariachi prepared for their last show in Ann Arbor, they took the time to write thank you cards to everyone who made this life changing trip possible and gave gratitude for all of the kindness they were shown throughout the week. After the UMMA performance ended it was time to head to the airport and make the journey back to Texas where Nuevo Santander was greeted at the McAllen airport by their friends and family.
Below are a few testimonies from members and directors of Mariachi Nuevo Santander on how the Ann Arbor trip impacted them and what it means to them now that the 2020 school year has been cut short due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Julie Hernandez, Junior violinist:
Mariachi has always been something so familiar but traveling reminded me of how special our music is. Being able to meet and teach the students of Scarlett MS opened my eyes to how music brings people together as a whole. Despite our differences in language, culture, and regions, music allowed us to connect to something more. The trip turned out better than what I expected it to be. The sense of unity, pride, and overall gratitude surpassed all my expectations. During this Covid-19 situation, I feel like now I am even more grateful to have gone on this trip. With all the uncertainty of whether or not I will be able to go back to school, I cherish the memories I was able to make with the seniors in the group even more. I really do believe that this trip brought us closer together, and as a result, we are still staying hopeful and strong during this uncertain time.
Adriana Martinez, Sophomore violinist and trumpet:
For the majority of the group, coming from a small town, some of us hadn’t ever seen snow or flown on an airplane before. From taking tours of the University of Michigan, to holding teaching workshops for the students at Scarlett Middle School, and performing at Hill Auditorium, this trip exceeded our expectations as a whole. From this trip, our admiration for what Mariachi music contributes to not only people of our culture, but people with all types of different backgrounds is something we will take with us forever.
It is very unfortunate to be going through the COVID-19 circumstances considering how recently we had travelled beforehand. It only makes the trip more memorable to have spent so much time with each other uniting as a group, and growing respect for each other musically. We are all extremely grateful for the opportunity to have travelled to Michigan and spread love and happiness through our music before these frightening times.
Francisco Garcia, Jr., Sophomore violinist:
I remember playing at this restaurant in where we played for about a little past an hour and it felt as if we were still in our homeland playing to the people in our pueblo, for everyone was enjoying our music and singing along side with us. Those moments are the ones I’ll never forget, because they remind me of how beautiful mariachi is and how anyone of any culture or difference can enjoy it and feel comfort through its magical music.
Due to the current events, regarding to what Covid-19 has done to the whole country, I believe the whole Michigan trip experience in general, made this year one of the best years of my life. Even though I might not be able to finish my school year with my friends, I can at least say that I ended it with my mariachi family and with an unforgettable experience.
Marielena Chapa, Junior guitarist:
Being able to travel to Ann Arbor was a dream come true! The airplane ride out of state, seeing and touching snow, meeting different people, and playing alongside the best Mariachi in the world were all firsts for me! It allowed us to be open minded to different cultures and to enjoy the climate that I would never have a chance to experience in South Texas. Teaching Cielito Lindo and participating with the students at Scarlett MS was an eye-opening experience that showed me know how much of an impact our Mexican culture can make.
Reflecting on the current Covid-19 situation, being able to go on this trip before this virus worsened is something I am very relieved and grateful for. Now that I’m staying home due to the school closure, I am able to appreciate and reflect on the memories I made with my fellow mariachi musicians. I look at pictures/videos of our trip or see a plane on the sky, and I get nostalgia. It also gives me hope for a better future after all of this passes.
Juan Garcia, Jr., Junior trumpet:
It was amazing to see that despite our different backgrounds that our cultures were able to unite and admire one another. Seeing how our beautiful Mariachi music touched and amused the people of Michigan will be something that I will cherish forever.
The current COVID-19 situation only makes this trip more memorable because now that our schools are closed and we aren’t able to interact with one another or rehearse like we used to before, all the memories and awesome experiences we made together in Michigan became extra special. Considering the fact that the outbreak happened quickly after our return home we are super thankful and feel beyond blessed for the opportunity.
Abiel Hinojosa, Assistant Director:
Winning this prize was very special to me because back when I was a senior in high school, I experienced an all-paid trip to Atlanta, Georgia touring with Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlán and I wanted for our students to have the same experience. These types of experiences are carried with you for the rest of your life and are something that no one can take away from you.
Every presentation we had was an experience to all of us, but the sold-out concert at Hill Auditorium was an eye-opening experience. We could feel every applause and cheer, the rumbling of the crowd was just awesome. I loved every single aspect of the trip. I thank God for all of the blessings he has given to this mariachi program and also I am thankful to MVE and UMS for an unforgettable week
Eloy Garza, Director :
“Success is no accident; It is hard work, perseverance, learning, studying, sacrifice, and most of all, love of what you are doing.” – Pele
Having earned our sixth National Title at the Vargas Extravaganza, makes me feel accomplished, inspired, and incredibly proud of my students. This victory confirms the foundation of hard work, discipline, consistency, and perseverance that I have established for the program to be successful. Moreover, the trip to Ann Arbor, Michigan has been one of the most memorable in my career. To witness the positive reactions, joy, and uplifting comments from the people of Michigan, when our students performed was so heartfelt and very inspirational. Being able to share our student’s abilities and talents with students of Scarlett Middle School was one of the most memorable highlights of the whole trip. It was very touching to see that the school filled the halls with welcoming posters and even painted a beautiful mural dedicated in our honor. Additionally, having the privilege of opening the concert for Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlán at the prestigious Hill Auditorium, for two sold-out shows of 3500 people, was just a breathtaking experience. Above all, the treatment that we received from the organizers and the people of Michigan was just like no other; they made us a part of their family. The six-day trip couldn’t have gone any better for our students and mariachi staff, thanks to the collaborations and planning between MPR and UMS. Sharing this lifetime experience with my mariachi staff and students is something that we will cherish for the rest of our lives.
Mariachi Nuevo Santander:
Alexia Aguillon, Jelayna Barrera, Francisco Garcia, Jr., Julie Hernandez, Adrianna Martinez, Arely Molina, Hector Ramirez III, Anyssa Renteria, Ernesto Saldaña
Andres Barrientos, Juan Garcia, Jr.
Marielena Chapa, Jacob Cruz, Sebastian Perez, Cesar Rios, Eric Santana-Garcia
Eloy Garza, Director
Abiel Hinojosa, Assistant Director
José Delgadillo, Assistant Director
This trip was made possible by a collaboration between the University Musical Society (UMS) and the Mariachi Vargas Extravaganza.
Debra Torres traveled with Mariachi Nuevo Santander during their trip to Ann Arbor, MI. A member of the Muñoz Public Relations (MPR) team she started her career with the Mariachi Vargas Extravaganza in 2008 as an intern. To this day she continues to share her passion for promoting mariachi music and education through the Extravaganza and other MPR productions. Torres is also a mariachi musician and the owner of San Antonio based all-female mariachi group Mariachi Flor de Jalisco.