By Perlita R. Dicochea
Strumming along to “Cascabel,” 10-year-old Eduardo García sat in the audience in his mariachi traje mesmerized by the musicianship of Sol de México who performed live during an intimate Sunday evening concert at Rancho Del Rey Middle School in Chula Vista.
The concert, sponsored and organized by the Mariachi Scholarship Foundation, was the culminating treat for 250 mariachi students who, like Eduardo, participated in 4 days of workshops with some of the most talented mariachi musicians to date.
“The workshops were really good,” Eduardo García, who took the trumpet workshops, said. “I want to play in a group when I’m older,” he added. Eduardo and his older sister Vanessa García, who attend middle school in National City, play with the group Mariachi Juvenil de National City.
Twelve-year-old Vanessa, who plays the guitar, also enjoyed the workshops. “They were fun and we learned a lot of new songsmy favorite is Las Alasanasand we got to meet different people outside of our own school,” she said. Vanessa’s class of 20 included a few students from Texas and students from throughout San Diego County.
The workshop participants who were predominantly middle and high school students in addition to a few community members of all ages, received instruction from top mariachi artists including José Hernandez, director of Sol de México, and the legendary Miguel Martínez, who was the first trumpet player for Mariachi Vargas and was extremely influential in revolutionizing mariachi music as we know it today.
“The knowledge and experience of my instructors was the best part of the workshops,” Jesse Romero, a senior at Chula Vista High School, said. “We learned great techniques,” he added.
Earlier on Sunday, student groups got a chance to strut their mariachi stuff before professional mariachi musicians during a 5-hour showcase, which is why one-third of the audience for the evening concert was sporting trajes. Jesse’s group, Ma-riachi de Chula Vista, received superior ribbons, the highest evaluation.
A unique aspect of Chula Vista’s conference was Jonathan Clark’s daily slide show presentations entitled “Mariachi History Live!” Clark, a mariachi music professor and historian at San José State University, conducted live interviews of Rigoberto Alfaro, past director of Mariachi Vargas, Jesús Rodríguez de Hijar, also a musical arranger with Mariachi Vargas, and Miguel Martínez., also of Vargas, for the workshop students.
“It’s very unique to have history presentations as part of these conferences,” said Mark Fogelquist, board member of the Mariachi Scholarship Foundation (MSF), which sponsored this year’s conference. “To hear mariachi greats talk about their experiences is a real opportunity for the students,” Fogelquist said.
This year is the first year that conference was sponsored and organized by the Mariachi Scholarship Foundation. In previous years, Viejas Casino and Outlets had sponsored a “Battle of the Mariachis” with prizes up to $2500. But new management decided to drop the event.
Jeff Nevin, the artistic director of the MSF, was influential in expanding the event at Viejas to include workshops for mariachi students. Soon the “battle” included several days of training, showcases, and concerts. “It turned into this huge event attracting people from all over the United States,” Nevin said.
Last year at Viejas, 400 students registered for workshops and 10,000 people were in attendance for the competition and concert. This year, 250 students registered and 1,000 people attended the concert.
Even as numbers dropped considerably this year due to a lack of resources, the idea of focusing on training tomorrow’s mariachi stars remains the central objective of the MSF. Nevin, who is also a mariachi professor at Southwestern College, insists, “This conference in San Diego could still grow to be of the caliber that Tucson is known for.”
Fogelquist, who is also a mariachi teacher at Chula Vista High School, echoes Nevin’s sentiments that the success of the Tucson International Mariachi Conference is something to strive for.
“The San Diego area is the best place in the country for a large-scale mariachi event. We have great weather. Mariachi experts from México can fly in to Tijuana and then drive across the border, which would lower costs for everybody. And we have many schools in the county that offer mariachi instruction,” Fogelquist said.
All of these factors put together, Fogelquist envisions that in five years the small, intimate concert held on Sunday evening could become a grand attraction that would fill Coor’s Amphitheater.
Tucon hosted the first mariachi festival and conference in the U.S. in 1983 and continues to be the most popular site in the country attracting upwards of 80,000 people, including over 700 workshop participants, and hosting concerts that are known to last over three hours
Even as a Tuscon-scale event is in the hopes of San Diego’s mariachi conference organizers for the future, there is something to be said about the more personal setting that characterized this year’s event.
“It was smaller than last year but it was more tranquil this year and I found that the kids here really want to be here. They also learn a lot more,” Sharon Jones admitted. Jones, of San José’s Mariachi Santa Cecilia, taught the novice violin workshops.
Manuel Chavolla, a 13-year old violinist at Chula Vista High, sums up the rewards of the activities for the students. “Fue bien suave,” he said. “The coolest thing was that we all got a chance to participate and we were in the front of the stage performing with famous people who have lots of experience.”