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Latinx Files: When ‘Mariachi’ went to Sundance

Illustration of a mariachi singer in between instruments
“Going Varsity in Mariachi” follows one high school mariachi program, the Mariachi Oro de Edinburg North High School.
(Martina Ibáñez-Baldor / Los Angeles Times; Osmosis Films; Getty )
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Among the films playing at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival is “Going Varsity in Mariachi,” a feature documentary about the highly competitive world of high school mariachi.

In 2019, the University Interscholastic League, the governing body that oversees all high school competitions in Texas, held its first sanctioned mariachi contest. Since then, these have been largely dominated by high schools from the Rio Grande Valley (Puro 956 cuh!), which really isn’t that surprising given that many districts in the region have funded these types of programs many years before UIL recognition.

“Going Varsity in Mariachi” follows one such program, the Mariachi Oro de Edinburg North High School. Mariachi Oro has fared well in past competitions but its director, Abel Acuña, worries that the current ensemble might not have what it takes to win state.

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The film was directed by Alejandra Vasquez and Sam Osborn, Mexican American filmmakers from rural west Texas and Colorado, respectively. I spoke to the duo on Wednesday, a few days after the film’s Sunday premiere.

How did this film come about?

Osborn: The project for us kind of got started once we heard that UIL was sanctioning mariachi at the same level as cheerleading, football and marching band. We were drawn to the intersection of a culturally specific arts program and it being near the border in a state like Texas. We saw a lot of interesting ideas in the very simple act of its existence.

What struck me about this film was that it was very much a border story, and one in which immigration is not at the foreground.

Osborn: We talked a lot about how much we wanted to foreground immigration politics in the film, and some days I would think, “Guys, there are refugee camps 30 minutes away on the other side of the border. How could we not address them?”

But I think we realized that we didn’t want to clumsily force that into the movie, and that the fact that this team and this program’s existence is political in itself. It is a recognition that generations and generations of immigrants have settled on this side of the border and are now putting their kids through American schools. That competitive mariachi exists is a knockdown effect of this. These public schools have programs that are thriving, and schools across the road or across the state are trying their best to keep up with the appetite of these families and students who really want to be a part of it. I wouldn’t call it an immigration story either, but rather a story about what happens to a population generations after the border has been crossed.

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Vasquez: It was really important for us just to tell a story that put things like joy and hope and excitement at the foreground. A lot of Latino stories tend to be more about trauma and firsthand immigration narratives. I think those stories are really important, but this kind of felt like a story that was celebrating our culture.

As I watched the film, I couldn’t help but to think about how these kids felt very American. There’s a scene in which mariachi director Abel Acuña asks his students what they know about José Alfredo Jiménez, arguably Mexico’s greatest singer-songwriter, and the best they could muster was that he had a mustache. It felt a little shocking, but it also made me realize that these kids’ roots are one or two generations further entrenched in this country than my own.

Osborn: It’s a mix, right? The film doesn’t explicitly go into this but some of the kids are translating for their parents, some have undocumented parents, and there are others who don’t speak Spanish. They’ve never heard of José Alfredo Jiménez. It really is a mix. Entering the classroom for the first time, we were struck by how they had different connections to the music and to their culture.

Vasquez: What we thought was special was that they were all making the choice to learn mariachi. They all auditioned to be there, and even if they don’t have such a strong connection to mariachi, they still made the choice to be there. They weren’t forced.

It’s funny because I grew up in the RGV and mariachi was definitely a thing at my high school, but I didn’t realize just how competitive it really is. As your film points out, there’s no better example of that than the mariachi program at Roma High School. Can you tell me a little bit more about that?

Vasquez: Roma is the shining star of the mariachi world. They start out in the fifth grade, where they take an aptitude test first and then they audition. You can’t join the varsity team if you weren’t already in the mariachi program in the fifth grade.

Osborn: Something we haven’t talked much about is the institutionalization that’s happening to mariachi, where it’s being shifted to be this very American, competition-oriented thing. There’s this trend towards institutionalization, where it becomes less of a cantina or club thing and becomes more of a school thing. I have mixed feelings on this. On the one hand, it helps take stock of mariachi’s history and really honors it. But a lot of people could probably also argue that it’s holding it back in some ways. I wonder how this process will affect this traditionally Mexican music.

Vasquez: It’s also happening to conjunto, which is so fascinating. Conjunto programs are growing across the RGV and all over Texas. Coach Abel Acuña now has a conjunto program and started teaching a conjunto class this year. It’s been so popular that it’s expanded to two classes.

There’s a scene that just blew me away. It takes place after the kids compete at the Mariachi Vargas Extravaganza in San Antonio, and they’re sitting in the classroom very deflated. To get them back on track, the teacher asks them earnestly what mariachi means to them. One of the students says she first heard the music at a funeral and was taken aback how it could evoke such feelings. She did an amazing job at capturing the essence of mariachi, that it’s so visceral and something you feel.

Vasquez: We love that scene.

Osborn: I think that’s the heart of the movie. We restrained ourselves from giving people a history lesson on what mariachi actually is, and having that scene kind of filled that gap for us. These students are recognizing how mariachi can function in their lives without having learned the play-by-play, Wikipedia version of the history. They get to experience it instead of being lectured about it. Mariachi is a way you can express your emotions, feel included in your culture, and in your high school.

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How did you two choose Edinburg North High School as the program to chronicle in your documentary?

Vasquez: What we really loved about that program was Coach Acuña and his philosophy. We had made a short film on the same team in 2020, and we really learned that he was not just about the trophies. He was more about how mariachi can be used in these students’ lives and how it can enrich them and their culture, how it can get them through high school and into adulthood. Meeting him and learning more about his philosophy and his approach made us interested in making something longer with him.

Osborn: We didn’t want to make a straight-up competition film, either. We wanted to make something that felt more coming of age and a little looser. It’s more about these kids’ lives instead of whether they’ll be champions or not.

Why is it that schools in the Rio Grande Valley dominate these competitions?

Vasquez: There’s a lot of reasons. Because they’re on the border. Because you can study mariachi in middle school, high school and in college in the RGV— a lot of these educators went to school and studied mariachi at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, and now they’re mariachi directors in their own right.

Osborn: Dr. Dahlia Guerra, who runs the mariachi program at UTRGV, I believe the majority of the school program directors in the region were trained by them. There’s this whole tree of mariachi training, and most stay in the region.

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How has the festival been for you guys? What has the reception been like?

Vasquez: It’s honestly been amazing. We were really lucky to connect with a local student mariachi group here, so they played at our premiere and our premiere party. We also had a high school screening and they did an impromptu performance in front of a thousand students. ... We also had the students, the five main protagonists, and Coach Acuña and his wife here. They got to come to Park City and celebrate with us.

Osborn: It’s been incredibly fulfilling to see the film working in a theater, all the little jokes and all the big moments. There were audible reactions in the theater that felt so satisfying after working on this project in a tiny, dark room for a year.

You can find our complete coverage of the 2023 Sundance Film Festival here.

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