The University of Texas Pan American’s Student Union Theater was alive with the sound of mariachi music last weekend as the award-winning Mariachi Aztlán performed a selection of traditional mariachi songs including canciones, rancheras and baladas.
With violins, guitars, guitarrones, trumpets and a harp all playing in perfect harmony as the musicians sang choruses and took turns singing the lead, young and old audience members alike clapped and cheered enthusiastically at the conclusion of each song performed by the 16-member group.
Founded in 1989 by Dr. Dahlia Guerra, Dean of the College of Arts and Humanities at UTPA, Mariachi Aztlán was born out of a desire to promote Mexican folk music and the culture of the Hispanic people of South Texas. Since its founding, Mariachi Aztlán has performed throughout Mexico and the United States with highlights including two performances at the White House, a performance with the Houston Symphony Orchestra, a performance at the Hollywood Bowl, a performance at the San Jose Mariachi Mexican Heritage Festival in San Jose, California, and a tour of Christmas shows in New Mexico.
While the true origins of mariachi music may never be known, Guerra shared that portion of its history that is most widely accepted.
“The instruments are European,” explained Guerra. “The violin, the guitar, the trumpet – these are all European. However, when the Spaniards arrived in Mexico and established schools of music, the Roman Catholic Church set out to stamp out all indigenous music. But little by little as the music of Spain mixed with the rhythms of the indigenous music, those twos against threes and the huapango rhythm that are so unique, that’s where you find the roots and the passion of Mexican folk music.”
“It was originally all string instruments,” added Guerra. “However in the 1930s and 1940s the trumpets were added and then the standard instrumentation of six or seven violins, two or three trumpets, a guitarron, a vihuela and a couple of guitars became standard in the 40s and 50s.”
While the lyrics are all in Spanish, Guerra explains why it is not necessary to speak or even understand Spanish in order to enjoy mariachi music.
“The music speaks for itself,” shared Guerra. “It’s the passion, the way the instruments throw the melody back and forth and the rhythmic play between sections. It’s a very passionate, emotional and expressive form of music.”
The UTPA Mariachi Aztlán has been selected as the “Outstanding College or University Mariachi” in nationwide competition various times. It has also won at the university and at the professional level, winning “Grand Champions” of the Mariachi Spectacular Competition in Albuquerque, New Mexico several years in a row. Mariachi Aztlán also won first place in the “Best in Texas” Mariachi Invitational at the Houston Rodeo in 2007, 2008, 2009, 2011, and 2012, performing for over 73,000 people on each occasion.
All of this success on a national and international level has led to Mariachi Aztlán receiving invitations to perform throughout Mexico and the United States.
“When you win at a national level you get the kind of attention we’ve been receiving,” said Guerra. “We’re called a lot to do really amazing things. Not only have we performed for President Obama twice, but just over the past year we’ve performed in San Diego, California, we’ve performed in Albuquerque, we’ve performed in New Mexico and in Chicago.”
Several of Mariachi Aztlán’s current members are graduates of local high schools. Ruben de los Santos, who plays the guitar and is one of the lead singers, is a 2008 graduate of Edinburg High School. After Sunday night’s performance De los Santos took a few minutes to share how he became a mariachi musician.
“I first heard mariachi music as a freshman at Edinburg High School,” said de los Santos. “That was when I was taken to the San Antonio Mariachi Vargas competition and I fell in love with it. It’s really rich in culture and in passion. It’s just a way of life for the Mexican people. You don’t understand it until you experience it live because there’s nothing like live mariachi music.”
Orlando De Leon graduated from Edinburg North High School in 2010. As one of Mariachi Aztlán’s first violins he was featured in several of the songs played Sunday night. Like de los Santos, De Leon came to love mariachi when he attended a competition.
“I used to think that mariachi was drunk music so that turned me off to it,” explained De Leon. “But then my friends told me that I could get out of class and get free food by attending all these functions so I went along. But then I saw Mariachi Vargas in Corpus Christi and man was I blown away. That changed my whole perspective about mariachi music and I realized that it can be a lot of fun and very energetic and not just a bunch of bar music.”
Upcoming performances for Mariachi Aztlán will be held at UTPA’s Albert L. Jeffers Theater Jan. 29 and 30 at 7 p.m. and Jan. 31 at 3 p.m. For more information and ticket prices call 956-665-2175.