Going Varsity In Mariachi, directed by Alejandra Vasquez and Sam Osborn, follows Edinburg North High School’s Mariachi Oro in South Texas. Instead of marching bands, the Rio Grande Valley has mariachi bands in many of their high schools, all working toward a state championship competition that demands nothing but the best from these students.
My oldest child is currently in their senior year of high school. She plays the trombone in their school’s marching band, and the rehearsal and practice hours can be demanding. For two months, they go around southern California competing against other 5A bands, all leading up to the Southern California School Band and Orchestra Association Show (SCSBOA), where 15 bands compete for the top three places.
A few months back, they qualified for SCSBOA and placed as bronze medalists. Witnessing firsthand the hard work they put into their performance is inspirational and admirable, so this documentary touches upon many aspects I’m familiar with while adding a cultural layer I wasn’t expecting to move me.
If you’re expecting a historical outline of mariachi as a genre, then you’re going to walk out of this documentary disappointed. Mostly focusing on the students and their lives outside of the mariachi band, this documentary is also about the collaborative efforts between a group of high school students working towards the same goal.
It’s about their individual motivation to be part of this band and the arduous work involved to achieve their qualification for the state championship.
If you grew up listening to mariachi music like myself, the carefully selected songs this band performs are iconic, powerful and recognizable. Mariachi music is intricate to Mexican (in my case Mexican-American) culture and it’s introduced to us through our parents, family and the environment around us.
Mariachi is part of most of our lives through funerals, weddings, birthdays, occasional dinners in restaurants, quinceañeras amongst other celebratory events. From Pedro Infante to Vincente Fernandez, this genre has been around for decades, and to witness its continued influence on newer generations is reassuring.
The film follows various seniors who must deliver their best since this is their graduation year. These kids come from different backgrounds and interests and have a diverse selection of career choices. Although it doesn’t fully dive into how mariachi has culturally impacted these students, there are some standout moments, particularly with one student sharing his experience after joining the band. I never felt so heard and seen during this sequence. He admits to joining the band to feel culturally accepted by peers and family members. Being Mexican-American comes with its challenges.
As Edward James Olmos so perfectly articulated in “Selena”(1997), we are too American for the Mexicans and too Mexicans for the Americans. We unconsciously feel obligated to connect with our roots by doing activities associated with that particular culture, like playing mariachi. When this young man began to break down sharing his story, I couldn’t help but cry, not in solidarity but in sympathy.
The documentary also introduces other high schools that participate in the competitions that are considered the best in their regions. By tactfully presenting them as other high schools who must also plan out their performance and hard work to achieve their victories, these other schools are looked at as competitors rather than antagonists or villains. The build up toward the state championships is flawlessly executed, and those last few suspenseful minutes are anxiety-inducing.
Overall, “Going Varsity in Mariachi”opens the window to a form of cultural preservation that has become the Rio Grande Valley’s DNA. It’s a music genre that’s impacted many of us and will continue to do so for many generations to come, thanks to these competitions. This is a well done documentary outlining the last chapter of these high school seniors with an emphasis on a mariachi band that signifies more than just an extracurricular activity.