The kids in Mariachi Halcon at Zapata High School in South Texas live and breathe mariachi. They listen to their favorite mariachi songs and videos on their iPhones when they’re not playing the music themselves – even though many don’t understand the Spanish lyrics. The students are not only gifted musicians, but also gifted students –among Zapata High School’s academic top 10 percent. In November 2010, the group was one of 18 high school bands to compete nationally in the prestigious annual Mariachi Vargas Extravaganza.
Co-director, Ilana Trachtman, captures the magical dynamic of this talented mariachi group in “Mariachi High.” The documentary is set to kick off the PBS Arts Summer Festival on Friday, June 29 at 9pm EST.
“We were looking for a charismatic director, and a community that was very connected – like the band is the heartbeat of the community, and a strong Mexican connection,” says Trachtman. “Zapata High School stood out for all those reasons. Padilla has a great tough love philosophy with the kids, a bunch of the kids raise farm animals, the valedictorian was in the mariachi, a confluence of really surprising kids that we felt anybody would be proud of. We were looking for role models and we found them at Zapata.”
Personally, Trachtman says this story plot attracted her because she was brought up by an Argentinian mother, and she remembers being keenly aware of how her Latina upbringing was different from other kids that were called Latino.
“They were being portrayed as troubled, and dangerous,” says Trachtman. “It was a negative portrayal, and that wasn’t the way I felt…[I thought] doing a film about a year and a life about a champion band would be a great film.”
So, in 2010, Trachtman, and her two co-directors, traveled to Zapata, TX, which has a population of approximately 5,000, to start filming the mariachi auditions that happen in the spring before the school year. They filmed competitions, the prom, rehearsals, all the way until the seniors were going off to college.
“What surprised me all along are how close these young people are to their parents and how wholesome they are,” says Trachtman. “Another thing that surprised me was the expanse of their ambition. They have the same ambitions as kids who go to the most expensive prep schools in New York City…”
She adds that Ashley, for example, is the school’s valedictorian, and she knows what’s involved in becoming a mover and a shaker and is ready to pursue it.
“I plan to study political science and become a corporate attorney,” says the eager Ashley Guzman, 17. “But music is always going to be there…mariachi is always going to be there.”
Trachtman says being a part of Mariachi Halcon is like a second family to them.
“They hang out together, and treat the director like he’s a father,” says Trachtman.
Guzman says she’s known everyone in the mariachi group since middle school. Spending so many hours together practicing makes the group seem like family, and mariachi even keeps them connected to their real families.
“It’s something to talk about with your family,” she says. “Your grandparents know what you’re talking about. It’s something to keep you connected to them and your culture.”
Fellow 17-year-old Mariachi Halcon violinist, Eloy Martinez, agrees. To him, mariachi represents who he is, as well as his culture.
“It means the world to me,” says Martinez. “I’m hoping to do my studies in medical school…but I’m not going to give up mariachi.”
Trachtman says what she loved most about filming ‘Mariachi High’ was being part of the rehearsals and hearing the music live,” says Trachtman.
It’s musically complicated and unlike what you would hear at a Mexican restaurant,” she says. “It’s beautiful, intense and festive. When you hear each instrument together, it’s like rich laughter.”