Going Varsity In Mariachi is a documentary that focuses on the world of competitive high school mariachi bands. Students from across Texas come together to compete, but also to make beautiful music that allows them to express their Mexican culture in an incredible way. Directors Sam Osborn and Alejandra Vasquez bring that competitive atmosphere to a new audience in a very personal way.
“To be early is to be on time, to be on time is to be late, and to be late is unacceptable” is one of the earliest lines featured in the film, and it immediately put a smile on my face. As a high school music teacher, it’s a phrase I use constantly with my students. Knowing that it is a phrase that transcends just normal high school marching band was neat to see. It also sets the tone for the competitive nature and high standards shown in the rest of the film. Texas is known for being incredibly competitive when it comes to high school music, but few outside the state know about the competitive Mariachi scene.
Coming out of virtual schooling due to Covid-19, many students are coming together to play in person for the first time. It’s a challenge to adapt to playing music in a full group after so much time spent playing on your own, and Going Varsity In Mariachi shows that. The primary school in focus is Edinburg North, an underfunded program trying to teach music to children and, inevitably, change their lives in the process. They want to win, they want to be great, but they also want to play beautiful music and make lifelong friends in the process. It’s a mindset that is identical to those in competitive marching and concert bands, which really touched me on a personal level given my experiences.
I particularly resonated with watching players struggle to learn the music. You can see the frustration on their faces when they play a wrong note or rhythm, and director Abel Acuña knows that it is going to be challenging. A lot of his students come from struggling families and music, for many of them, is their only key to unlocking their potential after high school. Competing for scholarships and access to higher education is rough, but Acuña knows this and wants to set his students up for success. It’s the same approach I take, and it’s a very personable one. I firmly believe you can’t successfully teach if you don’t care deeply, and Acuña clearly cares.
That doesn’t mean that there isn’t intense pressure on the kids competing. They have to be perfect if they want to win, and winning brings so many helpful things that it’s almost unacceptable not to win. It’s a hard balance to find between letting the music be the music while also trying to compete. The students and their directors have this deep-seated desire to be the absolute best, but the joy and passion behind the music are still there. They even love the learning process, which is so often lost in the world of competitive music. It’s not just about winning; it’s about the impact the music has.
Acuña mentions that mariachi music is home, and that feeling is strongly portrayed throughout. The Rio Grande Valley, where the story is focused, has a massive Mexican population, and mariachi music is a huge part of that culture. Acuña’s life was changed by mariachi music; his entire life revolves around it. That feeling of home and family that he feels when playing mariachi music is something he wants to give to kids of a younger generation, which makes his teaching so effective and his story so impactful. To him, it’s not just about winning or being great. It’s about understanding what mariachi music means to the Mexican communities the students live in and how much they can get out of it emotionally.
Going Varsity In Mariachi also shows the difference between low-budget and high-budget programs. Roma High School is considered the best high school mariachi program in the country, and its approach to everything is noticeably different than Edinburg North. It’s more cutthroat and harsher at Roma. The budget is there, so the equipment and music are nicer, flashier, and more expensive. There isn’t anything inherently wrong with the two different approaches, but it does highlight how financial inequity makes it challenging for schools to compete on the same level and the personal toll that takes on the musicians from lesser-funded programs.
It’s that personal look that makes Going Varsity In Mariachi so special to me. Sure, the music and competition are important, but it is the people who really shine. There are stories of students struggling with competitive pressure, familial expectations, accepting their sexuality, and the myriad issues that high school students have to go through. Mariachi is their escape, their way to channel themselves into something that is incredibly rewarding to do. I didn’t want Edinburg to win because of some sort of competitive appeal, I wanted them to succeed because I wanted to see the individuals reach their potential and feel the reward of all of their passion paying off. In that, Going Varsity In Mariachi does an excellent job of presenting why anyone should care about these students and their mariachi programs.
Music has a deeper impact on the individual, making it than words can properly express. It has the power to literally change lives and can be used as a tool for personal growth as well as growth as a group. Going Varsity In Mariachi shows that on such a deeply personal level that even non-musicians are going to love and appreciate it. Of course, it helps that the music being performed is as good as it is.
Going Varsity In Mariachi premiered at SXSW on March 12th, 2023.
Going Varsity In Mariachi
Going Varsity In Mariachi shows how impactful music can be, even in a hyper-competitive environment.