The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley sets the standard for collegiate mariachi music programs in the U.S. Founded by Dr. Dahlia Guerra and directed by Francisco Loera, Mariachi Aztlán has won numerous awards and has performed alongside great artists in the mariachi genre. Over the years, as the number of students interested in playing mariachi music at UTRGV increased, Mariachi Juvenil Aztlán was formed.
It is important to mention that collegiate mariachi programs follow a very different dynamic than that of a high school mariachi groups. High School mariachi programs usually meet 5 days out of the week and sometimes before and/or after school for rehearsals. Every program has a director, and the school allocates some type of budget for instruments, trajes, and travel. In contrast, a lot of college/university programs are student led and do not have the luxury of a budget.
During my time with Mariachi Los Paisanos from The University of Texas at San Antonio, our group was lucky that the department of music of the university had budgets to hire a director for the group, but for other universities that was not the case. We met twice a week for a couple of hours, and that’s if everyone could make it to rehearsal. Priorities like work, transportation, class, or finals prevented some members from assisting every once in a while. Also, we spent over a year fundraising until we had enough funds to purchase trajes for everyone in the group. Although playing the music we loved made it all worth it, keeping up with the program was challenging nonetheless. I spoke to Mariachi Juvenil Aztlán member Giselle Sanchez to see if her group experienced similar circumstances during their preparation for the Mariachi Vargas Extravaganza. Here is what she had to say:
Leon: Giselle first of all, congratulations for your group’s success as winners of the 25th Annual Mariachi Vargas Extravaganza National Group Competition College/University category. Can you tell us what songs you played and how Mariachi Juvenil Aztlán prepared for their performance?
Giselle: We started our set with a Popurrí de Sones that included El Jabalí, El son del Amigo and El Palmero. We then played El Pajarillo, and we closed with a Popurrí Veracruzano that included Maria Chuchena, El Balajú and El Torito Jarocho. Our group rehearsed twice a week for two hours with our director Pancho (Francisco Loera). Sometimes we practiced on Saturdays if we could and then we added an extra day of rehearsal the week leading up to the Extravaganza. We also spend a lot of time fundraising!
Leon: Tell me a little about how you all raised the funds to travel to San Antonio?
Giselle: We basically raised all the money by playing talon at restaurants in town. We played at places like Treviño’s, Muelle 37, Don Pepe’s and Woodreaux’s Bar & Grill. We were able to cover travel and lodging expenses with that money, but we each paid registration fees for the competition out of pocket. The University also gave us a stipend that we could use for food so that helped!
Leon: Where did you all stay during your time in San Antonio?
Giselle: We were so lucky to find a great deal on AirBnB. We stayed at a mansion that had plenty of rooms for everyone as well as a huge backyard and a pool!
Leon: Let’s talk about the competition. What was your reaction when they announced you won 1st place and that you were going to open up the show for Mariachi Vargas?
Giselle: It was really nerve wracking because we knew there were other colleges and universities that had performed solid sets, but when they announced the results we were really excited and honored!
Leon: What are some of the challenges you had to overcome?
Giselle: There were a couple of challenges. During the time we were fundraising some of the members couldn’t make it to our gigs. It was hard because some of us had to travel long distances to make it. Two weeks before the competition, Pancho decided to switch the arrangements of the songs we were going to perform, so we had to learn the music all over again. Also, after we won, one of our members had to leave town so we had to reassign some parts of our set before the concert. Thankfully, it all worked out and we were able to give a good show!
Leon: What was your overall experience at the Extravaganza?
Giselle: It was so much fun! I had been to the event before but I had never been part of the competition so that was amazing. Also, the fact that we did it all independently felt very rewarding once we were there. Winning and opening for the best mariachi in the world was such a great honor. We had a little jam session at our AirBnB after the competition and that was really fun as well.
Leon: Lastly Giselle, what advice do you have for graduating high school seniors who love playing mariachi music, but are not necessarily seeking a music degree in college?
Giselle: Just because you’re not going to study music doesn’t mean you have to give up your passion. Being part of Mariachi Juvenil Aztlán has been challenging, but it has also kept me on my feet, motivated, and made me a more responsible and disciplined person.
Giselle is currently a senior at UTRGV studying Bilingual Education. She picked up the violin at the age of 12 and played in her middle school orchestra. When she was in the 8th grade she was encouraged to try out for the All-Region Mariachi tryouts by Mirelle Acuña, orchestra and mariachi director at Edinburg CISD. Her talent landed her a spot in the All-Region Mariachi group, making her the only one in the group without prior mariachi experience. Giselle went on to play 4 years with Mariachi Oro from Edinburg North High School and after graduating she was accepted to UTRGV where she joined Mariachi Juvenil Aztlán. In 2014 and 2016, Mariachi Juvenil Aztlán performed at the John F. Kennedy Performing Arts Center alongside Ballet Folklorico UTRGV.
Since its early beginnings at the University of Texas-Pan American (UTPA), UTRGV’s Mariachi Aztlán has taken first place at various Mariachi Vargas Extravaganza competitions over the years. Now, Mariachi Juvenil Aztlán is hanging on to that crown! Kudos to the members of Mariachi Juvenil Aztlán and the leadership at the University for making it all happen!
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