Valley schools once again take state in mariachi

Members of the state champion McAllen High School Mariachi Oro are seen exiting a bus after returning from Seguin on Sunday at McHi. (Joel Martinez | jmartinez@themonitor.com)
The La Grulla High School Mariachi Grulla de Plata seen after winning a state championship in Seguin over the weekend. (Courtesy photo)

It’s a safe bet that high school mariachi directors across the Rio Grande Valley are running out of room in their trophy cabinets.

Musicians from Valley high schools once again put on a strong showing at the Texas Association of Mariachi Educators state finals in Seguin over the weekend.

Three Valley teams took home state titles: McAllen High won in the 6A division, Edcouch-Elsa won in 5A and La Grulla High won in 4A.

The teams competed against musicians from across the state, with Valley schools placing consistently high in the rankings.

La Grulla Mariachi Head Director Alfonso Rodriguez says 2020 is the latest in a long string of victories for his team.

“We’ve actually won nine times, consecutively,” he said.

Rodriguez attributes the near decade of victories to the hard work of Mariachi Grulla de Plata and the support of the La Grulla community.

“It’s just the dedication, the commitment of the students, and of course the directors as well. We do practice a lot,” he said. “All the parents, the community, the teachers and the administrators, they all supported us.”

McAllen High’s 6A win also added to a string of victories: Mariachi Head Director Alex Treviño said 2020 was McHi High School Mariachi Oro’s sixth win in the past seven years.

“The kids executed very well, played with a lot of passion, a lot of heart, put on a very entertaining show and just had a lot of fun on stage,” he said. “That’s a big part of the whole thing, not just playing the notes, not just singing your part, but doing it with passion and conviction and really feeling it.”

Treviño says that the practice that goes into winning those championships can be intense.

“We’re blessed to work with a group of really strong students, we put a lot of work into it. It’s almost like a football team, our rehearsals are intense — we’ve been accused at times of being harder than football coaches, and we are at times,” he said. “We take it very seriously. The level of musicianship that we expect from these kids is a pretty high level.”

This year, Mariachi Oro faced a particularly tough challenge.

The Edcouch-Elsa High School Mariachi Juvenil Azteca performs in Seguin, where they won the 5A state championship over the weekend. (Courtesy photo)
(Courtesy photo)

“It was a challenging year, we only had five kids returning from last year. We lost a lot of kids to graduation and such,” he said. “Eleven kids were brand new — some learning their instruments for the very first time, some that had been playing in band or orchestra, but the whole mariachi thing was new to them. So it was a very slow start, definitely a big challenge, a lot of fundamentals, a lot of scales and entry level repertoire. A lot of patience.”

According to Treviño, mariachi competition is fierce in the Lone Star State.

“The Valley does have some of the strongest, but there’s also some super strong groups in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, and also the San Antonio area, Houston — really all over the state,” he said.

McAllen High dropped from 6A to 5A after UIL’s realignment earlier this month, meaning that McHi’s mariachis will face a new slate of challengers.

“There’s a lot of really strong 5A school districts that have these programs,” Treviño said. “It’s not going to be any easier, the top ones in the 5A category are powerhouses and they’re very, very strong.”

Treviño says that McHi’s mariachis begin training in high school; many competitors at the 5A level begin grooming their musicians in middle school.

“We’re going up against a different breed of mariachi groups,” he said. “They start in the middle school level, so they start performing, they start learning all the mariachi stuff at a very early age. It’s hard to compete with that, but we embrace the challenge.”

One of those new opponents will likely be Edcouch-Elsa, this year’s 5A top dog.

Edcouch-Elsa Head Mariachi Director Marcos Garcia says Mariachi Juvenil Azteca has been TAME’s 5A champ three years in a row and also won nationally in 2018-19.

“It turned out really well for us. Our kids had a solid performance and they were able to bring back the state title for the 5A division,” he said.

Garcia says starting musicians out early is the group’s key to success.

Supporters of the McAllen High School Mariachi Oro celebrate the group’s arrival at McHi on Sunday as they return from Seguin after winning a state championship. (Joel Martinez | jmartinez@themonitor.com)
(Courtesy photo)

“We’re all about consistency. We have a solid system that we use, we’re the same directors from 6th grade to 12th grade, so we feed ourselves and the vertical alignment is there,” he said. “Having the vertical alignment there, we’re able to filter the kids and push them to the next level until they graduate, so the system helps out.”

McAllen joining the 5A fray will certainly add another challenge to next year’s competition, Garcia said, but it’s not a challenge he’s afraid of meeting.

“They should be able to put up a fight. They’ve been winning at that level for a while now, so it’ll definitely put another threat in that division,” he said. “We’re always open to competing against whoever.”

Garcia does, however, expect it to be a friendly competition.

“The director of McAllen, along with other schools in the Valley, is a colleague of ours. We all play in the same mariachi group, so we compete against each other and teach during the day, then we get together and gig during the night,” he said. “It’ll be a friendly competition. We’re looking forward to it.”

All three directors thanked the students, administrators, teachers and community that supported their efforts.

mwilson@themonitor.com