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A Championship Season in Mariachi Country

Every year along the Texas border, high school teams battle it out in one of the nation's most intense championship rivalries. Held yearly in San Antonio, the festival took its name from Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlán, Mexico's oldest continuous mariachi, whose members acted as the judges. It's the largest competition that is open to student groups and individual vocalists from across the country. The festival had been going on for 26 years, founded by Cynthia Muñoz, a public-relations executive who played mariachi as a teenager. While there would be other contests the second half of the school year, a first-place trophy at the Extravaganza was the most coveted title of the season, since the winners could call themselves national champions. The towns that makeup Starr County are older than Mexico or the United States, let alone the border that separates them. In 1749, a Spanish military officer named José de Escandón established the colony Nuevo Santander, which spanned the Rio Grande across what is now northeastern Mexico and South Texas. The communities that would become Rio Grande City, La Grulla and Roma began as ranches on Spanish land grants where families raised sheep, goats and cattle. What would become Texas cowboy culture was born in the region and flourished for a century. Then came a dizzying string of conflicts, as Mexico asserted its independence, Texas seceded and joined the United States and the Americans started the Mexican-American War, which ended in 1848. The river became a border, and the land to the north became Starr County. In only four decades. It was around this time that mariachi began to emerge into the historical record, but it would be more than a century before the music would fully take root in Starr County's schools. Musicians in western Mexico had long been melding the sounds of Spanish string instruments with the musical and performance styles of Indigenous and African peoples; the word mariachimay come from the Indigenous name for a kind of tree that was popular with local guitar makers. The word was well known enough by 1852 that a priest used it in a letter to describe a nearby band that was making too much noise. Jonathan Clark, a historian of mariachi, has traced the music's progress since. By the 1930s, it migrated to the cities — taking on a sharper look and a brassier sound, with the addition of trumpets. The music made its way north to Los Angeles, and it was there in 1961 that one of the first US-based professional groups, Mariachi Los Camperos, was established, as well as the first student mariachi, at UCLA Soon other student groups began to form across California and Texas. In 1970, the San Antonio school district began its high school mariachi program, and it became a model for other schools across the Southwest.
By the time the music came to the schools in the Rio Grande Valley a decade later, the region was ready for it. Residents of the South Texas border had their own storied tradition in folk music — first through corridos, 19th-century narrative folk ballads that were sung by rural, working-class people on both sides of the border, and subsequently through conjunto, the music of Tejanos that emerged in the 1920s through a collision of established local sounds (the guitar and Mexican bajo sexto) with the button accordion and polka styles brought to Texas by German, Czech and Polish immigrants. The culture was right, too. In the Valley, as locals refer to the region, residents felt comfortably Mexican and American, a perfect laboratory for a musical genre that itself knew no borders. The first high school mariachi in the region was founded in 1982, in a town called La Joya, in part to help integrate Mexican immigrant students and in part to help lower the dropout rate. Then in 1989, the University of Texas-Pan American inaugurated its mariachi-education program. Mariachi was an oral tradition, but the instructors and students there began writing their own sheet music. They applied music pedagogy and techniques from band and orchestra education. “When we started graduating students with degrees in music, the climate changes a little bit,” said Dahlia Guerra, a classical pianist who helped found the program and is now a high-level university administrator. “So now we have professional musicians who are teaching it at this level. Not to say it's better than or less than the folkloric oral tradition in Mexico, and what you see in restaurants and things. It was just more developed, a more learned way of teaching mariachi.” The school trained generations of mariachi directors. Today the university is called the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, and it has the most highly regarded college mariachi in the country, Mariachi Aztlán.

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