This Mexican musical tradition is now an official sanctioned high school event in Texas

Mariachi performance is a fully sanctioned University Interscholastic League event for the first time this year — a sign the Mexican ensemble style of music known for its stringed instruments, trumpets and powerful Spanish-language vocals is growing in popularity at Texas high schools.

The State Mariachi Festival has been held for three years under a pilot status, but this year’s event in Edinburg later this month means the festival is here to stay. The festival’s status comes as mariachi programs appear to be growing in Texas, where Hispanic students make a growing part of the school population.

“We believe that mariachi music is an important part of the heritage of many students in Texas because it is a part of their family heritage,” said Brad Kent, the UIL’s director of music.

Texas had more than 5.3 million public school students during the 2017-2018 school year, according to the Texas Education Agency. Hispanic students made up the highest percentage, representing 52.4 percent of the enrollment.

“The statewide competition is validating in the sense that UIL recognizes the significance and impact Mariachi music has on American society,” said Jacinto Ramos Jr., a member of the Fort Worth school board.

The Fort Worth school district is sending a record four mariachi programs to the 2019 UIL State Mariachi Festival. Programs from Carter-Riverside, Paschal, Polytechnic and North Side high schools will showcase their talents on Feb. 22 and 23 in Edinburg at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley campus.

Mariachi programs from Dallas-Fort Worth, El Paso, Houston, the Panhandle, Rio Grande Valley and San Antonio areas will be participating in this year’s event. In Arlington schools, Sam Houston High School also has a mariachi program that will participate in the festival.

The event marks the first time is Carter-Riverside participating at the festival, said Dick Clardy, the director of music for Fort Worth schools.

Clardy said programs participate in regional contests. Those that receive a “superior” or “Division 1” rating can go to the state festival.

Similarly, at the state festival mariachi programs are not ranked against each other, Kent said. Instead, they perform before a panel of three judges for a rating between one and five with one being the highest and five the lowest, he said. Programs that receive the highest rating receive a trophy.

Judges also select an outstanding performer, Kent said.

A growing interest in Texas schools

The festival was organized to help grow and develop mariachi programs in Texas school systems, Kent said. Groups participate in clinics aimed at helping further develop their programs, he said.

When the first festival was held in 2016, 55 programs participated, he said. Last year, 78 programs qualified for the festival.

Like the state, mariachi programs are growing in popularity in Fort Worth schools.

“We will probably have five programs next year,” Clardy said, explaining that there is a program developing at South Hills High School.

The programs allow students to immerse themselves in a style of music that boosts traditional uniforms. Students learn to play key instruments to the mariachi tradition — the guitar, violin, vihuela (a type of guitar), guitarron ( a large six-string acoustic bass), harp and trumpet.

The Fort Worth school district’s investment in mariachi programs is paying off, said district leaders and educators.

“I think that it really shows how hard our teachers are working. Just a couple of years ago I was one of those students but there was no State Competition to be a part of. I think that UIL is taking a step in the right direction and we have a lot to be thankful and excited about!” said Juan Sigala, mariachi director for Paschal and Polytechnic high schools, in an email.

The district’s oldest mariachi program is at North Side High School, which was named “Grand Champion” last year at a national contest.

Ramos, whose district includes North Side High School, said the growth of mariachi programs in the district is important to students.

“Our Mariachi represent the acculturation journey many of our students are living on a daily basis in our schools,” Ramos said in a statement. “They are maintaining and embracing their cultural roots through our rich and powerful music.”

Tobi Jackson, president of the Fort Worth school board, said traveling to the participating in the festival is an exciting accomplishment for the programs.

“These FWISD students will develop and strengthen their confidence and poise, while enjoying many new sights and sounds in a new city,” Jackson said.

Jackson said said mariachi traditions allow students to immerse themselves in an authentic cultural experience through music, dress and dance.

“I wish each of these teams the best of luck, but I am pulling for the black and orange of Poly,” Jackson said.

Related stories from Fort Worth Star Telegram

Diane Smith, a graduate from the University of Texas at Austin, has been a reporter for the Star-Telegram since 1997. Smith, who has covered municipal government, immigration and education, has won multiple awards for reporting, most recently as part of a Star-Telegram team recognized by the Headliners Foundation of Texas for coverage of child abuse and Fort Worth’s Las Vegas Trail area.