Josie Borges sat facing a wall as she nervously ran through scales to warm up her voice ahead of performing in the Mariachi Nationals competition.
The 14-year-old from Las Vegas had just wrapped up a week of workshops at South El Monte High School, studying under one of the genre’s best.
José Hernández — a four-time Grammy nominee who founded the well-known Mariachi Sol de Mexico and the all-female professional ensemble Mariachi Reyna de Los Angeles — started the intensive program six years ago. This year’s participants included 150 young people ranging in age from 5 to 30 and hailing from cities throughout the western United States and Mexico.
After four days practicing vocals and instruments including the violin, guitarrón, guitar and trumpet, they competed Saturday for a chance to play with the members of Sol de Mexico on Sunday at the Orange County Fair. The competition had two categories: solo vocalists and full ensembles.
Organizers handed out the order of performances. There were five ensembles and six vocalists.
“I’m going first” among the singers, Josie said. “I’m freaking out.”
While waiting in a back room for the ensembles to take their turn, she opened a small compact and carefully reapplied red lipstick. She wore a burnt orange mariachi skirt, jacket and patent leather boots. Her bangs were perfectly straight, not a hair out of place.
Josie picked up mariachi three years ago, she said, when she saw it being offered in addition to choir and orchestra at her school. She wanted to play the trumpet, but also loved to sing. With mariachi, she found she could do both.
“I just connected with mariachi music,” she said. “The way that they express themselves when they sing, it’s just really beautiful.”
But Josie doesn’t speak Spanish, which makes learning new songs a lengthy process.
Her father, who is of Mexican descent, translates the lyrics so she can understand their meaning and helps her with pronunciation, she said. Then she listens to the song on repeat until she memorizes how the words sound.
On Saturday, at her dad’s suggestion, Josie sang “Que padre es la vida” — “How great is life.” Her Spanish accent was spot-on.
“Fourteen years old? Wow,” Hernández said as she walked off the stage and hugged the other participants. “Let’s give her a round of applause.”
Hernández puts on similar programs elsewhere in the United States and in Latin America through his nonprofit Mariachi Heritage Foundation. Lately, he said, more young kids are getting interested.
“It’s a whole new generation,” he said.
Through his travels, Hernández said, he has noticed that other states
have much more advanced mariachi programs than California. He runs nine after-school mariachi programs in Santa Ana, and said he has pushed to get more funding for mariachi to be included in music curriculum. “That’s one of my biggest fights,” he said.
Edgar Cabachuela, 30, said he decided to compete “for redemption.”
Two years ago, he placed second in the vocal competition, losing by two points. Singers are judged for things such as intonation and song interpretation, and can earn a maximum score of 100.
Cabachuela, of Paramount, grew up with mariachi and sings in a local Norteño group. He attended Hernández’s program to challenge himself, he said, “and to be able to get closer to the top mariachis in the world.”
When his turn came, Cabachuela, who is blind, walked up to the stage aided by Josie and another contestant.
He sang the love song “A los cuatro vientos” — “To the four winds.”
“I want to cry, carrying this feeling
I want to scream to the four winds
That I am nothing, I am no one
That I’m worthless without your love”
Among the participants, who were overwhelmingly Latino, Svetlana Kalpakchi stood out.
The classically trained 27-year-old violinist from Ukraine picked up mariachi four years ago while pursuing her master’s degree in conducting. Now she works as an orchestral conductor and as the director of Mariachi Las Aguilas at Eastern Washington University near Spokane.
Kalpakchi said mariachi has harmonic functions and structure similar to traditional Ukrainian music. Fitting into the world of mariachi wasn’t difficult, she said.
“It’s a connecting environment where it doesn’t matter where you come from, as long as you live up to the art,” she said.
At the end of the event, judges announced that Jizelle Rodriguez, 15, of Texas had won the vocal competition and Mariachi Nuevo Amanecer of Huntington Park the ensemble.
Among the other competitors, no tears were shed.
A young girl walked up to Josie and hugged her tight. “Are you happy?” she asked.
Josie replied in stride: “Yeah,” she said, smiling. “Why wouldn’t I be?”