An engaging, if straightforward, invitation into the realm of competitive mariachi bands in Texas high schools, the documentary feature “Going Varsity in Mariachi” introduces us to the most victorious of them all, Mariachi Nuevo Santander from Roma High School. An exhilarating taste of their exceptional renditions comes halfway through the film’s runtime, but while they often rank far above their competition, here, they are only a secondary voice.
Since an underdog story always appeals to our empathy for those who overcome hurdles to attain seemingly out-of-reach goals, co-directors Sam Osborn and Alejandra Vasquez instead spotlight the Mariachi Oro from Edinburgh North High School in the Rio Grande Valley.
In Spanglish, the director of this mariachi, Abel Acuña, patiently instructs the kids without a musical background — from a low-income community, in an underfunded school — on how to play mariachi staples such as “Volver, Volver,” “Mexico Lindo y Querido” or those by songwriter Jose Alfredo Jiménez, including “El Rey.” Early on, an amusing clip shows some of the teens practicing their best gritos (an energic shout) to enliven their performances.
Our time with these nascent performers encompasses the 2021-2022 school year, as they struggle to prepare for a couple of minor competitions ahead of the state championship. First, the filmmakers offer a crash course in the sections that comprise the mariachi: violins, trumpets and armonias — they all sing. While some basic facts would have helped for those unfamiliar, don’t expect a history lesson detailing where mariachi came from, how it evolved or why it’s remained so popular in Mexico and beyond for generations.
Instead, the insightful and lively doc tracks the impact on students that comes from the opportunity to belong to a collective creative endeavor. Of the members joining for the first time, Drake, still a rookie on the imposing guitarrón, appears to be the weakest link, distracted by his girlfriend and more interested in the military. Then there are the violinists Bella, also the captain, and Abby, who believes mariachi could help her get a college scholarship.
Constructed from dynamically edited footage from practice sessions, fundraising events to pay for their trips and charro outfits, as well as their official presentation, the film boasts a vivacious score by Camilo Lara and Demian Galvez — and even an obligatory Selena Quintanilla moment near the end of their final mission. Prioritizing the other layers of music in their innately musical project pays off for the directors.
As someone around these students’ same age who fell in love with mariachi music, thanks to a teacher like the one he now has become, Acuña leads with a fervent respect for the instruments and for the wondrous, affecting tunes they can produce together. His pedagogical method comes off as strict but fair; after a disappointing competition outcome, he addresses the making of the documentary as a possible reason for his pupils slacking off. Even though he is conscious that the majority of them won’t necessarily go on to music-related careers, Acuñá knows the confidence and team-building aptitude gained in mariachi can be applicable elsewhere.
For all its intimacy, “Going Varsity” could have benefited from including a closer look into the artists’ home environment, especially their parents’ thoughts on them playing mariachi music. One wonders if they feel pride seeing their children wholeheartedly embrace this style of music so deeply associated with Mexican culture. Only Abby’s parents briefly interact with her on camera, but no conversation with them regarding her musical sensibilities transpires on screen.
Osborn and Vasquez’s film calls to mind “At the Ready,” another recent documentary about Latino teens in Texas high schools. The latter one, however, follows an extracurricular program that prepares adolescents, mostly of Latino descent, to work for Border Patrol. In both cases, the students who take part do so seeking a pathway to a better livelihood. The stark distinction between these two activities is that one enriches and the other exploits.
The rightward-leaning politics of Texas do come up in “Going Varsity” through Mariah and Marlena’s sweet romance. The two queer girls in Mariachi Oro, who dream of teaching music in the future, are fearful of homophobic sentiments in the state.
Gearing up for the national competition, Acuña holds a session for his young musicians to share what mariachi signifies to each of them personally. Luis, from the trumpet section, chokes up. “Mariachi’s made me feel accepted for who I am,” he explains. That’s the essence of it all, from whatever angle one interprets his statement: a reclaiming of a culture from which they perhaps felt estranged, or in an even broader sense, a way to prove to themselves that talent can be developed and honed with tenacity. A win-win.
“Going Varsity in Mariachi” makes its world premiere at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival.