The Orta family has been performing the 'Mariachi Mass' since 1969.
'Mariachi Mass' on Easter at Mission San Jose in April 2019. Credit: Cat Cardenas for the San Antonio Report

For 50 years, mariachi mass in San Antonio has been a family affair.

In 1966, Sister Frances Jean Terrazas of the Missionary Catechists of Divine Providence heard a mariachi mass for the first time in Cuernavaca, Mexico. From that first experience, she knew she had to bring the tradition back to San Antonio. She approached Jesse and Josephine Orta, local musicians who pored over an LP she had purchased in Mexico called Misa Mexicana.

Though it took some time to get their mariachi group off the ground, the duo worked with other musicians across the city to arrange and write parts for guitars, violins, and trumpets ahead of their first performance on Easter Sunday 1969.

The Ortas and their extended family have continued to lead the choir and mariachi group for three generations, and though their Sunday performances are almost always at Mission San José, in the early years, they also performed at St. Patrick Parish near downtown. And for the past 17 years, their mariachi mass has kicked off San José Missionfest during Fiesta. And throughout the rest of the year, their performances have become favorites for tourists and newcomers to the city.

Josephine’s daughter Carol Zuniga, who leads the choir with her aunt, said that she enjoys how their performances set the missions apart for their many visitors year-round.

“It’s an honor for us,” Zuniga said. “It brings another flavor to the mass. Visitors come from all over the world to the missions, and they get to experience something different with the mariachi music.”

Since they began performing together, the Orta family has ensured that, for the most part, much hasn’t changed. Though musicians have come and gone and the group has shrunk from its original several dozen members, the music has remained the same, and so has their close dynamic.

“We’re a family — the musicians and the choir,” Zuniga said. “We sing like a family, we play like a family, celebrate like a family, and it uplifts us to perform. When one of us graduates high school or college, when someone gets married, or even recently when one of us became a U.S. citizen, and we come together.”

Danielle Charles, granddaughter of Jesse and Josephine, acts as the current director of the mariachis. She took over several years after her mother Geraldine’s passing in 2004. Geraldine began teaching Danielle guitar and vihuela at the age of 12, and, like many of those in their family, much of their relationship revolved around music. Growing up, it was everywhere in her household.

As the director, she says her vision is to ensure that her family continues to participate in the masses for generations to come.

“It’s part of our culture, and I’d love to see it live on,” Charles said. “Other cities have mariachi masses, but it’s not incredibly common, so I’d love to see it flourish. Even for our family, because it’s kept us close.”

Over the years, the group has had the honor of performing for high-profile visitors like former First Lady Barbara Bush and Pope John Paul II. Still, they’ve kept things simple. Even as members come and go, new parts will be written for the rotating cast of instrumentalists, but everyone is always welcome.

For the mariachi and choir, it’s not about drawing in a crowd, it’s about the honor of performing in a place as historic and sacred as the mission, and making a mark on the people who pass through its walls. Looking forward, Zuniga hopes that her niece and the younger generation of musicians will be able to keep that tradition alive.

“I see the future in Danielle,” Zuniga said. “I certainly hope that we’re able to continue doing this. Not just in our family, but so the young people in our group can carry it on.”

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Cat Cardenas

Cat Cardenas is a freelance journalist from San Antonio focused on news and culture reporting.