New documentary dives into the world of high school mariachi competitions
“Going Varsity in Mariachi” is a new documentary that made its South by Southwest premiere this week, taking viewers into the world of competitive mariachi competitions in the Rio Grande Valley.
The film follows Edinburg North High School as they try and win a state title in mariachi.
Co-directors Alejandra Vasquez and Sam Osborn and student Abby Garcia joined the Texas Standard to talk about the film – what went into making it and why they think it’ll resonate with Texans. Listen to the story above or read the transcript below.
This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:
Texas Standard: Let’s begin with you, Abby, since you’re the expert here. Specifically, what happens in these competitions? Could you say a little bit more about them?
Abby Garcia: So groups are preparing different mariachi songs and they go to it. They go on stage and perform. There’s a lot of aspects. There’s the actual music itself, the way you dress and your showmanship. So there’s judges that judge based on all of that.
Alejandra and Sam, why did you want to bring this story of high school mariachi competitions to the rest of the world?
Sam Osborn: I mean, I think we were really struck by kind of the fact that, you know, we’re used to marching band and cheerleading and football, but we had no idea that Texas and other border states where we’re having these massive competitions for mariachi, I think we we didn’t expect that at all. And as Mexican-American filmmakers ourselves, we were just kind of magnetized to the story. And once we met the folks in Edinburg North High School and all the schools in the Rio Grande Valley, we realized this was something very culturally important – not just to the borderlands, but to the Mexican-American demographic in these schools, which is really dominant.
Alejandra, ditto to all of that?
Alejandra Vasquez: Yeah, I think it was really exciting for us to go to these competitions and to see Mexican-American kids take on this very traditional music and make it their own.
When you say “very traditional music,” how would you describe the sort of heart of the heartbeat of the music?
Vasquez: Yeah, mariachi music, it’s the way we tell our stories. It’s this very traditional music that was passed down. You know, it’s like folk music in a lot of ways. It’s border music, it’s trumpets, violins, guitars, a harp sometimes, and everybody sings.
Very interesting. So how did you choose which schools to focus on here?
Osborn: So, I mean, the first thing we did is we looked at the best ones, obviously. And Edinburg North is up there at the top. And once we started talking to the coach, Abel Acuña, I think we recognized that he was after something more than just winning trophies, despite the team being so good year after year. He was really after finding a way to get these kids skills that they could use, whether or not they followed mariachi in college and adulthood afterwards – and that keyed us into the idea that we could make a movie about more than just the “Friday Night Lights” of music.
Abby, do you remember what it was like when you found out a film crew was going to be following you and your classmates around?
Garcia: It was crazy. When I first found out, it was like I remember kind of like not believing it at first. I know this is actually happening. And then once they were there, it kind of felt cooler having the cameras around.
You know, it’s funny because a lot of times, you know, you’re told “pretend like we’re not here.” Did any of that add to the pressure at all to do well in the competition, do you think?
Garcia: For sure. On top of the competition, knowing that this is going to be recorded and be on file somewhere forever – it definitely added to the stress. But I’m still happy about it.
Would it be a spoiler alert to say how all this ended? I mean, it probably would. We can’t say who won the competition, can we, Alejandra? Sam?
Vasquez: No, no, it’s a surprise. I mean, when the team starts out, you’ll see that this is going to be an underdog story. They are not very good. They start out with brand new players. You know, the team really has to find their rhythm and harmony throughout the film.
Osborn: And we say that with love.
Abby, what do you play specifically and how hard is it?
Garcia: I play the violin.
Have you been playing for a long time?
Garcia: I’ve been playing since sixth grade. So now for seven years.
So did you begin by studying the music of mariachi or did you begin more classically – or, how did you get into mariachi music to begin with?
Garcia: The reason I played violin is because my mom was like, “you got to be in mariachi.” And I remember being like, “That’s crazy. I’m just going to do better than orchestral classical.” And then in eighth grade, I joined mariachi at my middle school, and I kind of just fell in love with it, even though I thought I would really hate it. I fell in love with it. And I continued throughout high school. Now, that’s what I study here at Texas State.
Oh, that’s great. I love how your mom said, “you got to do mariachi.” What, is your mom a mariachi player herself, or do you have family members?
Garcia: She just grew up with it. I mean, I grew up with it, too. I remember being in the car and my mom playing mariachi music and getting so annoyed because it’s so loud. Like, I grew up with it constantly, everywhere. That’s why it’s so special to me now, because now I can pass it on to my future children.
So the kids telling the parents to turn it down, I think that’s a first. Alejandra, how does it feel to bring the completed film back to Texas? I mean, you took it to Sundance. Tell us a little bit about the reception there.
Vasquez: Sundance was amazing. It was a total dream come true for us and our team – having our crew of 30 people, having some of the students and the coach there with us in Utah. It was just a really amazing premiere. But we cannot wait to bring it to Texas. I mean, this is a Texas film. I’m from Texas. It’s really special to come back to SXSW for the second year and have our Texas premiere at SXSW. It’s honestly amazing. We are busing up Edinburg North High School. So all of the students are going to be there with us. They’re going to do a special performance. We’re really excited.
Osborn: So I’m not originally from Texas, but having spent a year in the Valley, I think it’s clear that Texan audiences are going to get this movie more than anyone else. I mean, they’re going to see the Valley. They’re going to see these students in these communities and really just like immediately know what these kids are going for. And it’s something really special. And as you know, I think it’s going to be a unique screening.