OAK CLIFF FILM FESTIVAL 2023 REVIEW! As a way to hold on to the Mexican-American culture along the border, the state of Texas has sanctioned Mariachi as a school program. It holds state and national competitions each year. Co-writers/co-directors Alejandra Vasquez and Sam Osborn tell the tale of one school’s Mariachi program in their documentary Going Varsity in Mariachi.
The feature-length film is the story of Edinburg North High School’s Mariachi Oro, led by their director Abel Acuña. Our story picks up as schools return to a regular schedule after the Covid lockdowns. The program was decimated after the group’s juniors and seniors graduated and after not having a traditional program for two years. Now, led by team captain Bella, a graduating senior who wants to make the most of her final year in Mariachi, the Mariachi Oro is in somewhat of a rebuilding pattern.
The band is split into three sections: strings, trumpets, and the rhythm section, known as armonías, consisting of acoustic guitars and a harp. Edinburg North High School is at a disadvantage this year as many of the members are new to Mariachi. In particular, there’s Drake, who plays the guitarrón — the bass guitar that’s foundational to the band’s overall sound. Drake has been playing the guitarrón for only a few weeks.
The narrative of Going Varsity in Mariachi follows Mariachi Oro as they prepare for their first competition and then state competitions to their final destination, the state finals. The road to victory (if there is one) is paved with hardships. The first rehearsal doesn’t sound so great; in fact, it’s awful. The school then fails to place at the national competition while overshadowing its rival schools. Lastly, the aforementioned Drake is kicked out of the band for not attending practice. Can musical director Acuña and his students pull one out of the hat and save their school and, by extension, this documentary?
“…follows Mariachi Oro as they prepare for their first competition and then state competitions…”
I want to start by discussing the audience for Going Varsity in Mariachi. There are two, and the first will be fans of Mariachi music. There’s a joy and pride in the film’s participants over connecting with an essential part of the Mexican part of their Mexican-American Culture. Thanks to school programs like this, young people can continue the Mariachi tradition for generations.
The other audience is fans of documentaries and people interested in still learning about the world around them. I knew little about Mariachi other than the music played at my local Mexican restaurant or a performance or two at Disneyland. The film serves as a crash course in the history, musical instruction, and cultural significance of Mariachi and features impressive performances from the top high schools in Texas.
Of course, there are personal stories as well. Along with Bella and Drake, Going Varsity in Mariachi follows students’ lives as immigrants along the southern border, a place high enough to get college scholarships, and a same-sex couple navigating through school and prom, wondering how their love will be accepted outside the classroom. Acuña also takes centerstage as a mentor. He guides the students through the technical process of performing Mariachi and how the music has impacted their culture. Make no mistake, he wants to win and refuses to accept anything less than the best. Like a good sports documentary, this is a story of underdogs who find the spirit within themselves to come out on top.
There’s a lot of Texas pride oozing through Going Varsity in Mariachi. It’s a documentary made for the multicultural citizens of the Lone Star state, who are intimate with the music. The filmmakers show how the music’s allure spread beyond the Mexican-American community. Like the Mariachi music in Texas, the appeal of this film will spread to fans of documentaries.
"…a story of underdogs who find the spirit within themselves to come out on top."