At the first Battle of the Mariachis, 15 years ago, organizer MechelleCQ Lawrence Adams realized she might have a teenager problem.
The competition was over. Hundreds of young mariachi students had packed into Mission San Juan Capistrano, and they had nothing constructive to do while judges tabulated a complicated scoring sheet.
“Maybe you could all play a song together,” she suggested, though the students had battled each other all day.
One by one, they spontaneously joined in: trumpets, guitars, violins, singers. In the end, 300 of them made sounds that reverberated off the ancient Mission walls, filled the gardens, skittered along the arches, and suffused the giant courtyard with the holiness of song.
So began a ritual within the annual Battle of the Mariachis, which takes place on May 14 this year, after a two-year pandemic pause at Mission San Juan Capistrano. The final big songs from hundreds of orchestral musicians have become the most spectacular, goose-bumpy moments of this annual mariachi festival, and great care and practice now go into the unison song.
The mariachi festival, open to an enthusiastic public (it’s already sold out, but you can get on a waitlist), showcases the best of the southwest, as musicians travel from powerhouse places like Las Vegas and Texas, which each boast thousands of mariachi students.
I once lost a raffle prize trip to New Orleans because a mariachi ensemble was giving me a headache. (Mainly the trumpets blasting in a small space.) I left the event moments before they called my name—and the charity gave the prize to someone else. I still haven’t gone to New Orleans. My husband played trumpet for Fullerton’s Troy High School, and he can’t get enough of mariachi. He’s tried to win me over. Every trip to Mexico has included a private performance by a mariachi band (with different instruments depending on the region) playing my favorite song—“Cucurrucucu Paloma.”
While most of the important stuff at the Battle of the Mariachis happens on stage, there are special, smaller moments, for audience members who take the time to wander around the property, where the roses, poppies, and trumpet vines will all be in full bloom. Musicians gather in small huddles, in shadows throughout the grounds, to play together and to share tips, styles, and tales.
This is a true celebration of a musical tradition that began in the late 1700s in west-central Mexico (where many of our county’s Mexican immigrants hail from). Traditionally, the techniques and songs are passed from father to son, but that all went out the window in the U.S., with schools taking up the role and plenty of talented women joining the bands.
Lawrence Adams, executive director of Mission San Juan Capistrano, created the competition after she noticed that the cultural arts programming needs of 40 percent of the city, the Latino population, were not being met. The event became “an overnight success,” she says, and attractive to a diverse audience. Some of the players say they wish the audience would loosen up and engage more thoroughly in the mariachi tradition, which demands something of the audience (dancing, singing, yelling).
While musicians are required to play in two distinct regional styles, the third song is their choice and they often pick popular tunes such as “Yesterday,” “ I Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You,” and “My Way.”
Musicians are judged on group image, which examines how they look on stage. Is there teamwork? Do they look confident? Judges also look at the mariachi outfits—trajes de charro, a reflection of their Jalisco origin and its cowboys. A modest example of these highly embroidered costumes costs about $500. Students such as those at Santa Ana High School typically hire out their players for private events to help pay for the costumes.
The second major category, performance, examines command of the material, the accuracy of the interpretation, expression, tempo, pitch, ability to emote with the audience, and the gift for conveying the meaning of the song.
“You have to make the violin cry,” says Oscar Garibay, the mariachi teacher at Santa Ana High School.
The third category is what they call the X-factor. These are extra elements the band uses to win over the crowd. Maybe a nice introduction. An attractive couple singing a love song. Some dancers on stage.
I went to hear a long-time competitor, the Mariachi Los Santos at Santa Ana High, who played to a rapt audience of parents awaiting an awards ceremony.
Although the Santa Ana Los Santos have won the “People’s Choice” award twice at the battle, the pandemic slowed their stride. The juniors and seniors graduated out, so numbers fell from 45 to 22. Director Garibay tried to keep them engaged with online instruction, which included making music videos, but it has been a challenge to increase the group’s size.
It’s difficult to sit in the Bill Medley auditorium at Santa Ana High and not remember all the great artists and celebrities who have emerged from this school. (Diane Keaton, the Chantays, Tony Bellamy, Greg Louganis, Billy Bean, and the Righteous Brother’s Medley, among dozens).
Only one trumpet player remained—normally there are three—but he filled up the room. Other players were clearly missing, though the audience yelled and clapped and moved in their seats without really noticing the scaled-down group.
“Our ensemble used to sound a certain way. We were confident on stage,” Garibay says, acknowledging he is starting over. “Covid was basically two years of our students not learning anything.” Though I noticed a few hiccups, I thought they sounded terrific.
I talked to senior violinist Isabella Guillen after the performance. She said participating in the mariachi group sometimes helps students get into good colleges, because it’s so unusual. More than that, it has given her a greater appreciation for her culture and a better connection with her parents.
She wrote in her college application essay: “I realized that all the different instruments needed each other. That without trumpets or guitars, the music was incomplete. … Going to mariachi became my favorite part of the day. Being there helped me forget all the stress and worries.”
Like so many, her favorite moment of the event when she competed three years ago was when all 300 musicians played one song together.
“One group would start and then another group would join in, and another group, everyone joining in. It was the one part of the Battle of the Mariachis I know I’ll never forget.”
I’m sure I’ll feel the same, even given all those trumpets. Orange County boasts one other mariachi group that has won first place: the Mariachi Nuevo Capistrano. It surprises me that O.C. has so few groups competing, given the lively mariachi tradition that plays out throughout the county. But kudos to Lawrence Adams and her group at the Mission for pulling this off for 15 years. And good luck scooping up a ticket on the waitlist. For next year, tickets go on sale in February. Tickets cost $33 for adults and are cheaper for children and mission members.
For more information, call the mission at 949-234-1300 or visit missionsjc.com.