Mariachi music is the soundtrack to San Antonio celebrations, from weddings, quinceñeras and birthday parties to the city’s annual Fiesta festival. But mariachis also play a more somber and important cultural role, helping families grieve at funerals when loved ones are lost.

A group of 40 mariachis from various San Antonio troupes made the trip to Uvalde on Wednesday for an open-air concert on the town square meant as an outpouring of support for the families and friends of those lost in the tragedy of the May 24 massacre at Robb Elementary School.

Mariachi violinist and scholar Anthony Medrano, who organized the trip with visual artist Cruz Ortiz, said he considers the funereal role of mariachis a calling.

“I sometimes say that we’re an extension of clergy, that’s our role. Like priests [we] have to console everybody and give them hope,” he said.

Ortiz had visited Uvalde and made several impassioned posts on social media, documenting and bearing witness to the community grieving process. Thinking back on an impromptu memorial service held at his Southside San Antonio studio to honor the life of mariachi legend Vicente Fernandez, who died in late 2021, Ortiz said he recognized that mariachis were “trained for tragedy.”

People visit a memorial Wednesday to pay their respects to the 19 children and two teachers killed in last week’s school shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde.
People visit a memorial Wednesday to pay their respects to the 19 children and two teachers killed in last week’s school shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde. Credit: Nick Wagner / San Antonio Report

On Memorial Day, he approached Medrano asking what could be done for grieving families in Uvalde.

A chartered bus was quickly arranged and Medrano reached out to his community, who he said responded with grief and gratitude that they might play a positive role after the tragedy.

“Everybody who’s going has been wanting to go, has been wanting to figure out ‘What can I do?’” Medrano said. “The musicians I’ve talked to, they’re crying with me on the phone. It’s that personal.”

For the occasion, Ortiz and Medrano also wrote a story ballad, “El Corrido de Los Angeles de Uvalde,” with one verse that encapsulates the horror visited upon the town of 16,000 by a gunman with automatic weapons:

Una oscuridad nunca
Ha cubierto los calurosos cielos de Uvalde
Mientras se escuchaban los disparos
A lo largo del pequeño y tranquilo vecindario

Never has a darkness
Covered the warm skies of Uvalde
As the gunshots could be heard
Throughout the quiet little neighborhood

Several mariachi songs in the 150-year-old tradition were written specifically to express sorrow at the loss of loved ones, including classics “Amor Eterno” by Juan Gabriel and “Te Vas Angel Mío” by Cornelio Reyna, the chorus of which says:

Te vas ángel mío, ya vas a partir
Dejando mi alma herida
Y un corazón a sufrir
Te vas y me dejas un inmenso dolor
Recuerdo inolvidable me ha quedado de tu amor

You’re leaving, my angel
You’re leaving my soul wounded
And a heart to suffer
You go and leave me in immense pain
Unforgettable memory has remained of your love

These songs deal with death with “no sugarcoating,” and just the first strains of music as the song starts can bring up a well of emotion, Medrano said.

The bus and caravan of cars unloaded and assembled in the shade of the Uvalde town square by 5 p.m. After a brief introduction by Medrano, the air was filled with the sound of more than 40 mariachis bowing violins, blowing trumpets, strumming vihuelas, plunking guitarrones and singing full-throated lyrics of love and mourning.

Ortiz handed out screenprints of his corrido to people gathered at the town square memorial as the musicians played.

Members of the gathered crowd could be seen singing along and wiping away tears as they joined in a revered and reverential community ritual.

During a break between songs, Uvalde resident Enrique Serna said the performance was a comfort for the ailing town. “It’s just another chance to get the whole community together and put everything aside, all the tragedy, and experience something beautiful. Because we need this right now. Not everybody had a direct family member [affected] but everybody was affected in some way.”

Among the mariachis was 7-year-old Mateo Lopez, recognized at age 4 by the Guinness Book of World Records as the world’s youngest mariachi.

Mateo has generally been kept from performing the more somber side of mariachi tradition, his father Adalberto Lopez said, but this occasion warranted that the young performer be present and understand the importance of the occasion.

“He can really connect to the kids there, and hopefully when the kids see him … it’ll bring some joy and hopefully some peace. In the end, that’s what mariachi music is about. There’s a song for every situation and it’s a healing process. You’re healing through music,” Lopez said.

Mary Helen Diaz Bates, a lifelong Uvalde resident and retired system principal in several of the town’s schools, wiped away tears and voiced her appreciation after the performance.

Of the shooting victims, she said, “These children I may not have known, but I know their parents and grandparents. In Uvalde, you know everybody.” She said of the mariachis, “for them to come of their own accord, and do this for us, it helps the soul heal.”

She was especially moved by Mateo. “To hear that young child sing like that is just heartbreaking, but at the same time it’s so inspiring, it’s so beautiful because … life has to go on.”

After finishing the performance, many of the musicians viewed the memorials ringing the central fountain in the square, piled high with toys, candles, and flowers. Violinist Mark Efren Cantú said he and many of his colleagues are teachers of young kids, and several are parents of elementary-age children.

Shaking his head, he paused and said, “it’s close to home.”

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...