The names of middle school, high school, and college mariachi groups ring out like a catalog of Mexican culture: Mariachi Sol de Oro, Mariachi Toros de Plata, Mariachi Juvenil Aztlán, Mariachi Espuelas de Plata, and Mariachi Estrellas del Alamo.

These are just a few of the 51 mariachi groups that will visit San Antonio Dec. 1-7 to compete in the 25th annual Mariachi Vargas Extravaganza, “the toughest competitions in the world for mariachis,” according to Cynthia Muñoz, producer of the festival.

“This is the largest gathering of the most talented mariachi musicians who come from all over the U.S. to showcase their talents,” she said. Groups and vocalists hail from Utah, Nevada, and towns throughout Texas.

Several San Antonio groups have reached the final stage of the competition, but only two local vocalists will compete from among 42 finalists. One of them, 14-year-old Gabriela Villasana of Fox Tech High School, will be featured in the traditional Mariachi Mass at Mission San José on the festival’s opening day Dec. 1.

Mariachi groups and vocalists compete for the honor of performing on the festival’s closing night Dec. 7 at the Lila Cockrell Theatre, opening for Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlán, commonly considered the top mariachi group in the world.

“Vargas has always been at the forefront,” said Jon Clark, a mariachi historian from Southern California. Though the group, active for 122 years, was not the first to don charro suits or add trumpet or violins to ensembles, “they did it better than anyone else,” and became the model for other mariachi groups to emulate, Clark said.

The group was one of three mariachi groups featured on Linda Ronstadt’s 1987 breakthrough Canciones de Mi Padre album and tour, which has garnered more than 10 million copies sold worldwide and won a Grammy Award for Best Mexican/Mexican-American Album. The band now backs up popular singer Luis Miguel on tour.

“There is no greater honor than” to play before Mariachi Vargas, Muñoz said.

Winners receive accolades, but the top prizes can mean “a huge career boost” as well, Muñoz said. Mariachi Nuevo Santander of Roma scored a spot in 2017 on the television show America’s Got Talent.

Muñoz also cited former winner William Carlton Galvez, who won the vocal competition in 2013 and again in 2018 as a member of Mariachi del Alamo along with Vincent Pequeño and Israel Alcala. The three now perform as Trio Chapultepec, and will be featured as guests of the Houston Grand Opera for a special production in December.

They will follow 1999 national champion Vanessa Alonso, who has performed regularly with the Grand Opera for 10 years.

Winners also compete for $20,000 in scholarships and other prizes, Muñoz said, thanking local sponsors such as H-E-B and the Latino-owned Gonzaba Medical Group. For the first time, winners of the high school category will receive an all-expenses-paid trip to perform at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor on Feb. 14.

While the festival is centered around the group, vocal, and high school group competitions Dec. 6-7, the week is replete with mariachi celebrations including the Mass, the Serenata en el Rio on Dec. 5, and student workshops and performances on Dec. 6.

Master classes with guitarrista Jonathan Palomar will be held at the Butler School of Music in Austin on Dec. 3 and at the University of Texas at San Antonio main campus on Dec. 5.

Ticket information and a full schedule of events are available here.

Senior Reporter 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...