EDINBURG, Texas (ValleyCentral) — The Rio Grande Valley has become a powerhouse for high school mariachi programs.

Since UIL began offering a state competition in mariachi in 2016, 20 schools from the RGV have taken First Division awards, the highest honor possible. This, far and away, leaves the Rio Grande Valley as the top place in the state for mariachi programs.

One of the schools spearheading the RGV’s dominance is Economedes High School in Edinburg.

Economedes’s Mariachi Dos Mil has existed since 2000, seven years before the UIL offered even a regional competition for the event.

And in charge of each group of performers the whole way, is director Juan Garza, who ensures the students have fun while honoring their culture.

Garza has been involved with the program since its inception and has helped lead the mariachi to become a well-respected department at the school.

“It takes a year of preparation to do the whole thing,” said Garza. “Starting in June, the kids come in every weekend of summer so we are constantly working on it.”

Mariachi Dos Mil practices for competitions and performances
(photo: Nathaniel Puente)

Mariachi Dos Mil is a full ensemble complete with guitars, guitarrons, vihuelas, violin, flute, trumpet, and vocals.

During practice, Garza instructs the mariachi on what to play while he himself joins the performance playing trumpet.

”I played trumpet in the UTPA mariachi group, which was the best college mariachi group in the nation,“ said Garza. “So I bring that expertise here and express what it’s like to be in a top-level mariachi.”

The songs chosen to perform are a mixture of traditional mariachi music and modern songs that the students are interested in.

Garza states his favorite song to play is “Mariachi Loco,” but jokingly acknowledges the students aren’t too interested in playing that song.

When the group is not practicing for regional or statewide competitions, they’re showcasing their talents for the community.

The mariachi group has played at city events, nursing homes, and other performances involving the school’s Folklorico program.

Gabriel Garcia, violin, Angel Martinez, trumpet, Juan Garza, director
(photo: Nathaniel Puente)

Many of the students involved in mariachi also participate in the Folklorico program, including senior Angel Martinez, who plays vihuela for the group.

Martinez grew up in Mexico and says joining the mariachi group gave him a sense of belonging.

“This is where I belong. I tried sports but it didn’t feel like I belonged,” said Martinez.

Adding to that sentiment is Gabriel Garcia, a senior who plays violin, who says he joined mariachi to embrace his Mexican culture and express himself in a different way musically.

Garcia was initially involved in orchestra and says he took on the violin to challenge himself.

“The violin is seen as one of the hardest instruments so I decided to take the challenge,” said Garcia. “When I got good at it I felt I needed to find a new spark, and that’s why I joined mariachi.”

Both expressed gratitude for the experiences they’ve had in Mariachi Dos Mil from the competition aspect to the relationships they earned along the way.

Garcia and Martinez each plan to continue playing in mariachi groups when they attend college next year.

Garza joins the mariachi on trumpet during practice
(photo: Nathaniel Puente)

Garza says this job allows him to get paid for what he likes to do. He described how he’s constantly preparing and brainstorming ideas for his class.

Overall, Garza sees the top goal for the program is for the students to have fun.

”I have to teach them it’s all about fun,” said Garza. “If it’s not about fun, their mind is not going to be into it. But when it’s fun and there’s competition involved, they put in extra effort.”