“Going Varsity in Mariachi” Celebrates the Choice to Preserve Culture

Going Varsity in Mariachi - Still 1. Courtesy of Sundance Institute

Sam Osborn and Alejandra Vasquez feel like they’re living a dream. Their film, Going Varsity in Mariachi, recently premiered at the Sundance Film Festival with great fanfare, including letterman jackets and a mariachi performance. After all, this traditional Mexican music is the heart of the film. 

“We made the movie we set out to make, and we had all these amazing collaborators. And it was accepted in this festival,” Osborn told LatinaMedia.Co in a recent phone interview. “There’s so much validation in that.”

“As our background is Mexican-Americans, it felt like it had the makings of everything that we look for in a story,” said Vasquez. “There was music, coming of age, competition, drama, a Latino story.”

Going Varsity in Mariachi features Edinburg North High School’s Mariachi Oro in South Texas as they prepare for their annual state competition. Most of the students are new to the program, including the guitarrón player, who provides the foundation to the ensemble, so there is a lot of work to do if they want to succeed.

That said, Osborn disclosed they didn’t want to make a straight competition film. So the directors started searching for the right mariachi team to spotlight – they initially reached out to the top-ranking teams in the Lone Star State and talked to a lot of coaches before selecting Edinburg North High School. “We landed on Edinburg North because the program was way more holistically focused, less focused on trophies,” he explained, “The coach really wanted to make sure that the skills they developed in the program were skills they could take into their life afterward.”

"Going Varsity in Mariachi" co-director Alejandra Vasquez. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.
Alejandra Vasquez. Courtesy of Sundance Institute

The crew started filming in May 2021 and filmed through June 2022, covering the entire school year from auditions to graduation. It was a challenge for the directors to narrow 300 hours of footage to the almost two hours that became the documentary, but they knew the film would start with the first competition and lead into the final competition.

“We always had that idea of the structure,” said Vasquez. “It changed along the way but I think we had something to work off of, and what we really wanted to do was fill it in the real heart of the movie to be the coming-of-age stories of the musicians growing up in the Valley.” 

The student musicians featured in the film come from different backgrounds, proving that Latindad is not a monolith. Some of the students are second- or third-generation Mexican-American. Some are fluent in Spanish, and some are learning the language through the mariachi music they perform. “They all have a totally different experience with our culture,” said Vasquez. “Even just within this one school, you see this huge range of the Mexican-American experience.”

Osborn and Vasquez are drawn to Latino stories. Their short documentary, Folk Frontera, that shares two women’s experiences living along the U.S./Mexico border in West Texas, premiered on PBS Independent Lens and won a Grand Jury Award for Texas Shorts at SXSW last year (I was an associate producer for the film).

“It was really important for us when we were building our team,” said Vasquez. “We really thought about who was going to be behind the camera and editing the film.” They brought on Camilo Lara, a music producer known as Mexican Institute of Sound, as one of the film composers. Editor Daniela I. Quiroz won Sundance’s Jonathan Oppenheim Editing Award for her work on the documentary.

Luis Miranda, Jr., father of composer and filmmaker Lin-Manual Miranda, joined as a producer after Osborn and Vasquez emailed him about it. The three talked about the project, and Miranda connected with it. “He was one of the first people to really support the project,” said Vasquez.

“It was just so cool to be able to make a movie about Mexican-American teenagers and not have to have their focus be on the stereotypical things that are shown in movies about Latino culture,” said Osborn. “That they were able to be normal kids with normal coming-of-age issues, and for that to be the center of their universe, and without having to erase the culture that they’re a part of. That was such an opportunity.”

"Going Varsity in Mariachi" co-director Sam Osborn. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.
Sam Osborn. Courtesy of Sundance Institute

The teens in the film discuss life after graduation, learn to drive, and deal with romantic and familial relationships. Two Latinas worry about how being in a relationship with each other will affect their long-term goal of becoming teachers in the red state of Texas. 

In another scene, the students share what mariachi means to them. One student becomes emotional as he tells his classmates that mariachi makes him feel like he belongs. Another shares the moment she realized how much this music can provoke strong emotions. To one senior, mariachi is a path toward college. After her parents informed her that they wouldn’t be able to help pay her tuition, she auditions in hopes for a scholarship.

Osborn said he would have benefitted from the mariachi program as the music wasn’t played in his household growing up. His Mexican mom loved the music, but she didn’t listen to it regularly. Vasquez, on the other hand, grew up listening to mariachi at every family gathering. “When we were in the classroom or hanging out with the kids, Alex would always know the lyrics to whatever songs they’re working on, and they were always new to me,” said Osborn.

As a result, one lesson the two directors took from this experience is that cultural preservation is a choice. Seeing the students learn the importance of mariachi at a very young age was inspiring to Vasquez, who shared, “I think I learned that you can do that at any age, and that there’s so much value in it.”

One way they are preserving their culture though is through their film, Going Varsity in Mariachi. “I can’t wait for people to experience mariachi – people who don’t know anything about it, people who only listen to it in Mexican restaurants,” shared Vasquez, “And then for people in the Valley, mariachi is super, super important for them. And for them to see that there’s a whole movie that acknowledges that and showcases that – it’s been a really amazing experience.”

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