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Mariachi Extravaganza: Meet the competitors of this year’s ‘Mariachi Super Bowl’

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Jack Morgan
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Seguin High School's Mariachi band prepares to take the stage

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Once a year, several hundred young people and parents head to the Lila Cockrell Theatre on the San Antonio River for an incredibly competitive music competition. It’s called the Mariachi Extravaganza and the competitive singing and playing stretches out for two long days. Cynthia Muñoz began the Mariachi Extravaganza 28 years ago.

“The Mariachi Extravaganza is like the Super Bowl. It's like the NBA finals, the Olympics,” Muñoz said.

But unlike pro sports, the Mariachi Extravaganza is for elementary, middle school, high school and college students, divided into three competitive categories.

“We are expecting just about a thousand students that will be participating in this year's extravaganza,” she said.

Mariachi music began in Mexico, but the American southwest has embraced it for decades. It’s known for its many stringed instruments—guitars, guitarróns, violins. It’s also known for its soaring vocals.

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Jack Morgan
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Barbara Dovalina

One of those singers with soaring vocals was middle-schooler Barbara Dovalina.

“I've been singing since I was seven years old. But I started singing in the group just last year,” Dovalina said.

‘The group’ she references is the Mariachi program at Armando Chapa Middle School in Kyle. All these young musicians at the Extravaganza come from school-sponsored music programs. For her young age Dovalina’s confidence and talent was exceptional. She has a trick to calm her nerves while she sings.

“It felt like I like no one was there. I wasn't scared,” said.

Essentially, she said the audience disappears and she lets the music take her.

“Yeah, all I could see was just nothing. Like just the music and even my voice,” she said.

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Jack Morgan
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Samuel Andres Garza

All the performers wore Traje de Charros, the ornate costumes that come in dozens of colors. Samuel Andres Garza’s Traje de Charro was pure white. The teenager’s been singing for years, but only recently jumped onto the Mariachi bandwagon.

“Mariachi--I didn't really get into it. I didn't really like it until I got into middle school. And it's…it's everything to me,” Garza said.

His Friday morning performance was mature and confident, and as he sang he effortlessly jumped up an octave. When his song concluded the applause showed he had made fans, including quite a few who know him.

“Yeah, I have my team and the opposing middle school from Roma, and they all cheer for me,” Garza said. “It feels pretty good knowing that I have supporters.”

Several schools in the Rio Grande Valley are at the same time very competitive, and highly supportive of one another. Interestingly, another big hot spot for Mariachi is in Las Vegas, Nevada, where Stephen Blanco teaches mariachi.

“We actually have the largest mariachi program in the nation. Clark County School District has 7000 students enrolled in mariachi,” Blanco said.

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Jack Morgan
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Stephen Blanco of Las Vegas

These school-based programs don’t just teach how to play and sing. They teach kids how to read music.

“We are a full scale music education program. They learn just as much theory, if not more than they would in a band or orchestra or choir,” he said.

Blanco noted that many kids start out thinking they can’t cut it, but then they have a breakthrough moment.

“And it's all these a-ha moments that they gained through music that they're now able to bring into the algebra classroom or into their English classroom,” Blanco said.

Grammy-nominated Marcos Zarate is Mariachi Director at Rio Grande City High School. He says studying Mariachi is a several-year process that doesn’t just produce musicians.

“Once they start learning how to play that instrument, we teach them how to sing and they start opening up little by little, little by little,” Zarate said. “And from the first day they start to the last day they finish, they're just a complete different person.”

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Brianna Espinoza, Alondra Hernandez, Jazzmyn Stewart

Frank DeLeon teaches Mariachi at Simon Middle School in Kyle. He credits a pop star for the re-vitalized interest in Mariachi.

“Linda Ronstadt brought, I feel like she brought mariachi music back in the mid-eighties to the United States,” DeLeon said. “And so now we have school groups like you see here all over the United States.”

In the period since Ronstadt’s Canciones de mi Padre album, Mariachi programs have grown exponentially in southwestern schools.

“My program has gone at a 700 student school where I've had over 200 students in a mariachi program,” he said. “I'm a firm believer in that It is cultural.”

“It feels if like we're appreciated for sharing our culture.”

Taytum Rangel plays violin and sings with Seguin High School’s Mariachi Matador. She says what she’s learned from Mariachi has prepared her well for whatever comes next.

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Jack Morgan
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Alec Vazquez

“Definitely is taught me a responsibility. It's taught me leadership. It's taught me so many factors and that will help me in my future life,” Rangel said. I do plan on going to college. I'm not sure if I'm going for music or business yet, so I don't know yet what comes next. Wherever life takes me.”

Alec Vazquez is a senior and plays violin in Roma High School’s Mariachi program.

“I think it's given me the tools to succeed. I mean, Mariachi they've been teaching us for the last seven years: Discipline and the power of commitment,” Vazquez said. “And I feel like that's going to translate really well into the real world skills that I'm going to need.”

Now that Vazquez nears graduation, what are his plans?

“College. I want to pursue a career in medicine. So then we'll see where it goes from there,” he said.

A young lady with cornrows spilling over her Traje de Charro got my attention. She’s Jazzmyn Stewart.

Students from Armando Chapa Middle School in Kyle had an impromptu jam not long after leaving the stage1

“I'm half Hispanic, African-American. My mother is Hispanic and I grew up more with my Hispanic side like family was,” Stewart said. “So that's I think that's why I really got into mariachi. And my Hispanic family was very supportive of it, and we're very happy for it.”

She says she may well not be the last in her family who learns Mariachi. She has two brothers and a sister.

“They also want to get into mariachi once they get to, like, middle school or high school,” she said.

The vocal finalist was Friday morning, and 10 year-old Eduardo Antonio Treviño was a real standout.

“I've been singing for around eight years now,” Treviño said.

The power and accuracy of his voice, even at 10 years old, is amazing.

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Jack Morgan
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Eduardo Antonio Treviño

“This is my first competition here at the Mariachi Extravaganza,” he said.

Like Garza earlier, Trevino has the tricky knack of being able to slide his pitch up an octave, a crowd favorite, and tough to pull off. He downplayed its difficulty.

“When you're young like me, it would be not so difficult. But then as you grow older, I say it would get more difficult because of the voice change.”

Despite his star-like stature at such a young age, when complimented for his accurate singing, he showed real humility.

“Well, confession time. So sometimes I'm going out to performances. And like, right now, with the weather change, I've hit some wrong notes when I do those high ones,” Treviño said.

He didn’t hit any wrong notes on this day, though. In fact, Trevino went on to win top vocalist in the Elementary/Middle School category.

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Jack Morgan can be reached at jack@tpr.org and on Twitter at @JackMorganii