Mariachi groups compete during Serenata en el Rio at the Shops at Rivercenter.
Mariachi groups compete during Serenata en el Rio at the Shops at Rivercenter. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Wearing a broad gray sombrero, Martín García stood holding his trumpet, facing an audience of 18 eager mariachi students from Christa McAuliffe Middle School. All were gathered at the Forest Hills Branch Library on Tuesday as part of the weeklong Mariachi Vargas Extravaganza, which runs through Sunday, Nov. 18.

Admitting he was uncomfortable as a public speaker, García briefly expounded on the early history of mariachi music before directing his three partners in the Mariachi Espuelas de Plata ensemble to play Camino Real de Colima as a primary example of the form.

Soon, the normally quiet library was filled with sound, blaring brass accompanied by the familiar lilting, melodic rhythms of the guitarrón, vihuela, and violin. The chief purpose of the annual Mariachi Vargas Extravaganza festival was being fulfilled once again.

“For a lot of the kids here in Texas, when you have a better understanding of these beautiful cultural traditions that go back for generations and generations, it impacts your self-esteem. And that impacts how you perform in school,” said Cynthia Muñoz, a publicist who rescued the festival from a 10-year dormancy in 1995 and has produced it each year since.

Initially, the reborn festival was sponsored by the Ford Motor Company as a means of marketing its vehicles to upscale Latinos, Muñoz said, but she’d always had the purpose of education in mind.

“We utilize the mariachi music platform to promote higher education and cultural preservation,” she said. “There are a lot of colleges and universities that participate in the Extravaganza. That’s really important to us, because we promote higher education.”

Mariachis practice before performing for Serenata en el Rio, part of the Mariachi Vargas Extravaganza, at the Shops at Rivercenter. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

The Mariachi Espuelas de Plata library visit was just one among a weeklong series of events presented by the Mariachi Vargas Extravaganza, now in its 24th year. After daily workshops, demonstrations and showcases, the week culminates in various competitions Friday and Saturday nights. Top vocalists and ensembles from schools throughout Texas, and from locations in Nevada and California, demonstrate precision and elegance with mariachi performance and dress, Muñoz said.

On Sunday, competition winners will share the Lila Cockrell Theatre stage with the group many consider to be the top ensemble in the world, Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlán, which performs at 7 p.m.

The Extravaganza kicked off Nov. 11 with a traditional mariachi mass at Mission San José, following a 42-year tradition. Muñoz herself took part in those masses as a young mariachi singer and player and now pays tribute to the Orta family, who brought the tradition of the mariachi mass back to San Antonio from Cuernavaca, Mexico.

“They learned all the beautiful traditions through the church,” Muñoz said. “They came back, and that one family taught hundreds of children and adults all of the beautiful cultural traditions through music.”

For many years, the centuries-old mariachi tradition was learned mostly by being passed down through families, García said. He himself learned from his five sisters, who formed one of the first female mariachi groups in San Antonio, the Mariachi Estrellas de Platas.

Now, the 26-year-old García appreciates that “Mariachi Vargas Extravaganza has opened the doors for mariachi education. We have the opportunity to interact and learn from some of the greatest mariachis in the world,” he said.

Admission to the Friday, Nov. 16, vocal competition and the Saturday, Nov. 17, group competition is $20. Tickets for the grand Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlán performance on Sunday night at 7 p.m. range from $46-$206. All performances take place at the Lila Cockrell Theatre.

Nicholas Frank

Nicholas Frank moved from Milwaukee to San Antonio following a 2017 Artpace residency. Prior to that he taught college fine arts, curated a university contemporary art program, toured with an indie rock...

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