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Uvalde varsity mariachi team momentarily brought together a divided city

Pixabay

The tragedy of the 2022 Robb Elementary School shooting in Uvalde left immeasurable scars and divided a city. But for a moment, one tireless teacher and a group of young mariachi musicians gave Uvalde something to cheer about together.

Julyssa Lopez, senior music editor for Rolling Stone, wrote about it in the latest issue and joined Texas Standard to discuss. Listen to the story above or read the transcript below.

This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:

Texas Standard: I know in the weeks and months since the shooting at Rob Elementary, this has become a family thing. I mean, that shooting has in some very profound ways united many families to seize the moment in a sense. Could you say more about that?

Julyssa Lopez: Sure. You know, just ahead of anniversary, we wrote about some of the mothers who are really working hard on gun reform legislation that they feel would have prevented a tragedy like this. And they’re part of an organization called Lives Robbed that is is really working hard. And they’ve really dedicated their lives both to honoring the lives of their children and to working on certain efforts to make schools safer. And so, you know, I think it’s it’s a difficult conversation. I think it’s really divided the Uvalde community, but these moms aren’t giving up.

I know you’ve done a few previous stories in Uvalde. How did you come about hearing of this mariachi team and its work?

Yes, I had written a few pieces before and had spoken to some of the families, and I had done a piece last year when a lot of mariachi musicians went over to Uvalde from all over Texas to show solidarity. And so I kept in touch with a few people from that community – you know, the mariachi community in Texas is pretty small. And somebody reached out to me, I want to say in February, and they had read the previous mariachi piece and they said, you know, “we just came back from the UIL State Festival” – which is a high school showcase for mariachi teams all over Texas. And they said, “we just saw the Uvalde High School team perform and it was one of the most incredible things we’ve seen ever. And it was really emotional. And you should try to get in touch with this teacher.” So I got lucky enough and found them.

Just to be clear, UIL is the University Interscholastic League, which does a lot of organizing around sports and things like musical competitions and that sort of thing for people who haven’t lived in Texas for a while. Tell us a little bit about this teacher you mentioned. Who is he and how long he’s been teaching in Uvalde?

Yeah, he’s Albert Martinez. He has been playing in mariachi bands for years, actually, since he was in high school. Funny enough, he’s actually from Puerto Rico, but has really fallen in love with this Mexican art form. And he started teaching in Uvalde in 2021. So he had a year before the tragedy happened. And when he got there, you know, the mariachi team, I think, had been around for about 20 years. I think when he got there, there had been some turnover in the program. They hadn’t had a consistent teacher in a few months. So the kids really didn’t want to practice when he got there. They were really not excited about, you know, this guy who really came from the competitive world of mariachi, who all of a sudden wanted to really tighten them up and have them perform. So he spent about a year getting them ready and training and then obviously the tragedy happened sort of right in the middle of it.

How did that tragedy affect all that work? And I wonder if, in a way, this became something completely different for those young musicians?

I think what’s interesting is that we’ve seen so many examples of how mariachi music has become an outlet of grief in Uvalde. One thing that really struck me as I’ve been doing reporting there is seeing mariachi bands, you know, play at funerals, seeing things like the mariachi ride with so many so many students there. I think the kids really feel like this is something that’s deeply connected to their roots. And I think, especially once they won, I think it was important for them to make their community proud and to try to do as well as they could at the competition.

UHS Illusions Indoor Guard & Drumline under the direction of Mr. Molina takes 2nd Place in their division outperforming 3 other teams! pic.twitter.com/QjU9Gdlclq— Uvalde High School (@uvaldehs) February 4, 2023

So tell us about what actually happened at the competition. We should point out this is quite a spectacle, too – visually as well as sonically, right?

Yeah. I mean, you know, I think the entire state of Texas has such a special culture of mariachi. And so when you go to a competition like this, you are going to see so many bands that are seasoned – so many kids that are incredible, solid performers. And so, again, these kids, you know, originally when Mr. Martinez got there, didn’t even want to practice. So they had really, really worked hard the last year or two to really tighten up their musicianship. And so they got to the state competition this year and I think they felt much more confident about what they could do. However, when they were performing, they had one small slip up. I don’t think that the performance, you know, in their heads, didn’t go as well as they wanted to. But I think what the judges saw was that these kids really, I think over the last year, had formed such a bond that even after a slip up, they were able to bring the performance back together, which is really hard to do in music where you actually… you know, when you’re performing, there are different sections. There’s a trumpet section and there’s a string section and there’s a rhythm section kind of all doing different things… 

It’s hard to get everybody on the same page.

Absolutely. And these kids were able to and I think it ended up really moving a lot of the judges and striking them, you know? I talked to the director of music at UIL, Bradley Kent, who said that most of his team was in tears watching these kids, you know, kind of be able to pull it together. So in the end, they brought home the top prize for Uvalde and were able to make their community proud. They got a number one, which is a superior rating. And again, it’s just really, really hard to do. You know, it’s not an easy task and especially the fact that, you know, this program has been around for more than 20 years – I think it’s probably 25 – the fact that the first time in their history they were able to pull this off, I think really speaks a lot to their determination and how dedicated they are to this art form.

I bet that program’s not going backwards next year.

I sure hope not. I don’t think so.

What was it like to close out this year for the students and for Mr. Martinez?

You know, it was really special. At the end of the year, the school district puts on a concert. And I mean, obviously, I mean, there’s still so much grief and emotion in Uvalde. I think nothing is ever going to change what happened. Nothing is ever going to, you know, erase the tragedy. I was struck by how many people in Uvalde came out and supported this team of high schoolers. At the end of the year concert, I think it was something like 800 people showed up to a high school show and the kids got to play for their community one last time. It just really, really meant a lot to them to be able to do that. And it was an emotional performance, too. You know, there were people in the audience in tears. The kids at the end, especially the ones who are graduating and going on to different things in Texas, they were in tears. And I think it just really capped off what’s been an emotional journey for them.

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Kristen Cabrera