It is 4 p.m. at Hueneme High School on a recent weekday and already the campus has that sort of eerie look schools get when students leave for the day and night sets in.
But on closer inspection, visitors can hear mariachi music as a colorful scene unfolds behind the lockers near Room 11.
About 30 young men and women -- some of the latter dressed in long, colorful skirts over blue jeans -- weave, tap and zigzag in unison to traditional Mexican music blaring from a boombox.
A few days before its first competition, it is crunch time for Grupo Folklorico Orgullo de Mi Cultura of Hueneme High School. On Sunday, the group members will face 10 other folklorico teams at a tournament in Ventura, all vying for the chance to perform at Fiesta Broadway, L.A.'s largest Cinco de Mayo celebration.
With her hands on her hips and wearing a teal skirt over pants, dance coach and Hueneme High teacher Vanessa Calderon smiles and eyes her team carefully. "Smile at your partners," she tells them. "You're supposed to be having fun!"
Seventeen-year-old Matilde Polvo says she hopes her two years of experience dancing folklorico will help her team win.
"I want people to understand what we're doing out here after school," said Polvo, her denim capri pants peeking out under her red skirt. "These are Mexican dances, but it's also for Hueneme and we put a lot of effort into this."
Indeed, the mariachi bands at Hueneme and Channel Islands high schools were hard at work this week, preparing for their performance Sunday.
"It's just like a sports team," said coach Ramon Rivera, a music teacher who coaches three teams at Hueneme and Channel Islands. "You have to get them disciplined and ready to go."
In an Oxnard garage on Thursday, four little girls from Ballet Folklorico Mixtitlan donned cowboy hats and ornate skirts to dance "La Revolcada" and "Las Mujeres Que Se Pintan" during another rehearsal. As if on a grand stage, the girls smiled, shimmied and displayed their fancy footwork.
"We've practiced a lot," said a giggly Brenda Contreras, 8.
Sunday's competition, sponsored by the McDonald's Operators' Assn. of Southern California, is a way to bring the region's mariachi and folklorico groups together for one event, said program Chairman Bob Arciniaga. There are similar competitions scheduled in San Bernardino and Los Angeles later this month.
"There are not too many forums where the kids can actually get together, compete and learn from one another," he said. "It's something that will always stay with them."
Judges will select one group from each level of both mariachi and folklorico competitions to advance to the grand finale showcase at Fiesta Broadway in April, where there are expected to be half a million people.
"At Fiesta, they'll get to share the stage with some of the top groups and singers of the time right now," Rivera said. "They probably will never again get the chance to play in a stage with those people in that big of a venue."
The McMariachi y Folklorico Juvenil Competition takes place Sunday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. at Buena High School, 5670 Telegraph Road in Ventura. The mariachi competition begins at 10 a.m. and the folklorico competition at 1 p.m.