The staccato sound of trumpets, a chorus of violins and steady strums from the guitar section filled the air at North Side High School as students prepared for the Fort Worth Stock Show and Rodeo’s Texas Invitational Mariachi Competition.
The powerhouse mariachi program won nationals in 2017 and played at Carnegie Hall in 2014.
Leonardo Castruita, 18, a senior violin player and section leader, said his goal this year was to add more trophies to the school’s practice room.
“At the very beginning, in sixth grade, I didn’t want to join mariachi,” Castruita confessed. “But eventually I fell in love with it because of the competitiveness and how I get along with my peers.”
Ramon Niño III, director of the mariachi program at North Side High School, said he appreciates how competitions drive students to practice outside of school hours, but mentioned that his priority is making sure the students perform well and have fun doing it.
After facing challenges because of COVID and intermittent competitions, Niño is more focused on the experience for the students than the outcome.
“For the audience members that go watch the contests or any concerts that the students are performing, I would hope that they realize how much time and effort goes into that, especially now,” Niño said before the competition.
Wendy Imelda Martinez, the group’s associate director, echoes that desire.
“We tried to be as normal as possible just because we knew the kids needed that,” Martinez said. “There were a lot of things that were not normal to them, starting with virtual teaching, so we tried to be consistent for them.”
Senior Annabel Gonzalez, 18, noted the difficulty of trying to play together virtually or in hybrid situations last year.
“I’m sitting behind a computer screen with my violin at home, and if there was something I didn’t understand, it was kind of hard for me to ask,” Gonzalez said. “So I feel like, getting to be back at school, in person this year, has definitely helped a lot.”
Aside from connecting with their peers, Gonzalez values how mariachi links the school to its surrounding community.
“Everywhere I go, if I’m wearing a traje, I’m playing a violin or they hear mariachi music, they’re like, ‘Are you guys from North Side?’ and I’m like, ‘Yeah, we’re from North Side.’ So, I feel like that reputation has been set,” Gonzalez said.
Maria Rivera, 18, a fellow senior and violinist, noted that their school is in a neighborhood with a lot of Mexican and Hispanic families. “I think us playing kind of represents the entire community.”
Reflecting on the rehearsal where students were reminded to not just play, but perform, the message seemed to resonate with Rivera.
“We’re always so focused on what’s on the paper, so we go off what’s written instead of what we feel with the music,” Rivera said. “So now, we’re trying to connect the music with ourselves and expressing ourselves while playing and singing.”
During the competition, Mariachi Espuelas de Plata did just that.
On Saturday morning, the students took the stage at Will Rogers Memorial Auditorium and were transformed.
Teenagers who had seemed shy earlier in the week, performed solos and duets with the confidence and charisma of trained professionals.
But, members of Grand Prairie’s Mariachi Sol Azteca brought a similar energy and skill to their performance and a little more polish.
They edged out North Side High School to win first place at the stock show’s mariachi invitational. North Side finished second.
Josúe “Eddy” Lopez is in his first year teaching and is the director of Grand Prairie Fine Arts Academy’s high school mariachi program.
“I think that everyone did well. North Side did very well,” Lopez said after the performance. “It’s their home turf, so it was a little scary at first, but I think the kids worked really hard.”
Before teaching, Lopez was a professional mariachi performer, and he also wrote musical arrangements, including for North Side High School.
Though they are competitors now, Lopez spoke of his respect for Niño and the program he’s built over the years. The North Texas mariachi community is small, but it’s healthy with competition.
“When I talk to the kids, my goal is always do the best that you can,” Niño said. “When I’m gone, when they’re gone, the trophies are going to be gone, you know? But the memories they build, to me, is the most important thing.”
North Side students will have the opportunity to build memories, and potentially win more trophies, when their school hosts the North Texas regional competition this Saturday.
Marcheta Fornoff covers the arts for the Fort Worth Report. Contact her at email@example.com or on Twitter. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.