Congratulations Nayelli Peña from Grulla High School who was selected as the Grand Champion Vocal Winner at the 28th Annual Mariachi Extravaganza. Andrea Daniela and I had the opportunity to speak with Nayelli and her mariachi director Alfonso Rodriguez on a recent Zoom call to learn more about her journey to the Grand Champion win.
Cynthia: Where were you born?
Nayelli: In McAllen. My parents are from Nuevo León, Mexico and my grandparents lived in Rio Grande City. I live right in front of Grulla High School.
Cynthia: What is it like growing up in Grulla?
Nayelli: Grulla is a very, very small town. We’re a 4A school with 750 total student enrollment. The school is made up of students from La Victoria, Alta Bonito, La Grulla and La Casita-Garciasville in Starr County and Sullivan City in Hidalgo County – all which are in South Texas in the Rio Grande Valley area.
Cynthia: How long have you have been singing?
Nayelli: With mariachi, for 7 years but singing in general, all my life. As a 6th grader, I was the only one competing in the TMEA with voice. I was probably the youngest one there and I was very nervous….not so much while singing, but while I was waiting for the results. I was pretty devastated because I didn’t win anything.
Cynthia: Alfonso, how many students are involved in the mariachi program at Grulla?
Alfonso: In the high school, there are 26 students. In the middle school, there are 45. There’s more students interested in the program but we only accept 26. I teach at both the middle school and high school. We team teach so I’m only at the high school half a day and at the middle school the other half.
Cynthia: How many years have you competed in the Mariachi Extravaganza?
Nayelli: I’ve competed 5 times in the group competition and 4 times in the vocal. In 2017, I competed my 7th grade year in the group competition with Mariachi Juvenil Grulla de Plata from Grulla Middle School. It was my first ever big performance on a stage. In 2018, I competed for the first time in vocals and won first place in middle school with Aye mi Mexico. In 2019, I competed as a Freshman with Buscando el Séptimo Amor and then came back in 2021 with La Cigarra my junior year. Then I won grand champion my senior year with Lo Que Un Dia Fue No Sera.
Cynthia: How did you go about selecting your song for this year?
Nayelli: I sang it for UTRGV’s Festiba in April 2022 and won first place. This was the highest award. I decided to stick with the song “Lo Que Fue Un Dia No Sera” and I’m glad I did. It was a song that Jose Jose sang back in the 70s. The song is about putting a past love behind.
Cynthia: What instrument do you play?
Nayelli: I started off with the guitar in middle school and then transitioned to the harp. I transitioned into harp my freshman year. Mr. Rodriguez taught me how to play.
Cynthia: What has been your 3 biggest accomplishments so far?
Nayelli: Winning Grand Champion at the Extravaganza, winning first place at UTRGV’s FESTIBA and winning first place in vocals at the Mariachi Vargas Extravaganza in Middle School.
Cynthia: Who has been your biggest inspiration vocally?
Nayelli: I like Arturo Vargas, Aida Cuevas and a former vocal teacher Jose Rangel. He was the mariachi director in Middle School. He is now at La Joya ISD.
Cynthia: Who attended the vocal competition to cheer you on?
Nayelli: My parents, my little brother and some friends attended. My parents were bawling when I won and they were crushing me with hugs. They were so proud of me and they know what a huge accomplishment this was. They’ve known that this has always been a dream of mine to win.
Cynthia: How did you select your outfit?
Nayelli: My mom and I were looking on Pinterest for some ideas. My mom decided that a bright pink would look good on me with my skin color. We asked a seamstress named Rosa Falcon in Alto Bonito to make the dress. Just before heading out to San Antonio for the competition, my mom, my two aunts and grandma were helping to sew gold fabric on to the dress.
Cynthia: What are your goals for performing?
Nayelli: I want to continue singing. I feel like it’s always been about music for me so I want to continue in music. My education and career is also in the plans and very important to me as well.
Cynthia: Does anyone in your family sing?
Nayelli: There’s musicians in my family…an uncle plays the bajo and my dad sings occasionally.
Cynthia: Do you have brothers and sisters?
Nayelli: I have a 12 year old brother. He’s into sports.
Cynthia: What other kinds of music do you like?
Nayelli: I like Banda music….not so much Banda but the musical arrangements. I like pop, Spanish rock, Julieta Venegas and Natalia LaFourcade.
Cynthia: Alfonso, what does this win mean for Grulla High School?
Alfonso: It’s a big honor. It’s the first time that one of our students has won grand champion. The district and principal are very proud of our group and Nayelli. Anali Hinojosa won third place and 5 vocalists from Grulla made the finals.
There’s a lot of talented singers in the area. Jose Rangel, Diana Salinas (use to be at Ringold Middle School) and myself have led the singers.
Cynthia: How do you create so many strong vocalists at Grulla High School?
Afonso: I do a vocal warm up with the students every single day. I have two different warm ups. They know before they start singing they have to do the warmups. I enjoy working with the students on the phrasing but really it’s a combination of everyone’s help.
Nayelli: He also brought in Ms. Monica Fogelquist from UT-Austin who helped us with the vocal technique.
Cynthia: How did you feel about the vocal competition overall this year?
Alfonso: It was very competitive. Abril Cisneros from Del Sol Academy in Las Vegas also did a very good job.
Cynthia: How did you celebrate your win?
Nayelli: After the concert, we went to eat. I was so exhausted I just wanted to go to bed. It was my birthday on November 15. I turned 18. I didn’t get to celebrate because I needed to rest. We still haven’t celebrated but we’re going to soon.
Cynthia: Where do you plan to go to school?
Nayelli: Right now, I’ve been accepted to to A&M Laredo and Kingsville but UTSA is also an option. I want to study pharmacy and music. I like chemistry and I feel like a pharmacist is a bit more relaxed than being a doctor. I’ve always wanted to go into the medical field and a few of my cousins are pharmacists and it’s something that has always interested me. I’m an AP scholar and scored a 5 in my AP Spanish. My mom is the studious one. She worked with the special ed students.
Cynthia: Thank you Nayelli and Alfonso for your time this afternoon. It’s been so much fun learning more about Grulla and congratulations once again Nayelli.
Nayelli: Thank you Cynthia.
Nayelli Pena completed early college studies at South Texas College in December 2022 and will be graduating from Grulla High School in May 2023. She has been invited to perform in Amarillo, Texas with the Amarillo Symphony and Trio Los Reyes on October 13–14 as part of the “Celebraciones” concert in celebration of Hispanic Heritage Month.
Felicidades Nayelli. Much luck in your continued success!
Nayelli Pena is the recipient of a $5,000 scholarship made possible by Mariachi Extravaganza sponsors Cano Health, KHS America Academic Alliance, H-E-B and WhatAburger. She will also receive an additional $5,000 matching scholarship if she selects UTSA as her school of choice. Thank you to our sponsors and UTSA for supporting the Mariachi Extravaganza!