MCALLEN (ValleyCentral) — For those who have lived in the Rio Grande Valley, escaping the sounds of mariachi is not an easy task.

We’re treated to the ensemble at quinceañeras, city events, weddings, and just about anywhere else music might be present.

Many see mariachi music as just another chance to hear a rendition of Vicente Fernandez’s “Hermoso Cariño,” but for some students at McAllen Memorial High School, performing mariachi is a way for them to get closer to their heritage by performing an art form they enjoy.

McAllen Memorial’s Mariachi Los Potrillos combines these qualities in their performances.

The group consists of more than a dozen students that handle all the instruments found in mariachi music.

Students incorporate the guitar, trumpet, vihuela, guitarrón, violin, harp, and voice into their songs as they merge traditional mariachi music and modern hits for their set.

Ivan Perez, McAllen Memorial Mariachi Director, oversees Mariachi Los Potrillos (photo: Sal Castro

Their work is overseen by Ivan Perez, McAllen Memorial’s Mariachi Director, who ensures the program is run smoothly and students are able to get something meaningful from their work.

“The kids learn about their culture in this program. Mariachi music is important to our culture in the RGV,” said Perez. “But they aren’t just learning about the party side of it, there’s a competition side to it where you perform on a stage and engage with an audience.”

At these competitions, the mariachi group is judged on their performance. Schools can be scored on traditionalism and experimentation.

Mariachi Los Potrillos advanced to the UIL state competition last school year, which Perez noted as a remarkable feat considering many of the players were first-year performers.

The school’s mariachi program only recently started gaining traction again when Perez took over as director in 2020. Before that, the program’s longtime instructor had retired and Perez states people had forgotten about the program.

Now, however, Mariachi Los Potrillos is back in the spotlight, and performers like Estefani Estrada, the program’s student president and trumpeter, are ensuring it stays that way.

Estefani Estrada, Mariachi Los Potrillos President, sings and plays trumpet
(photo: Sal Castro

Estrada is now a senior and has enjoyed keeping the program’s spirit alive while doing something she enjoys.

“When I first started I was excited because I play trumpet and sing so being able to combine those here with people I like is great,” said Estrada. “Getting to do it all in my first language (Spanish) is neat.”

She says meeting other people just as passionate about the music and seeing everyone put in the dedication to the performances is great to see. The program’s president acknowledges she’s been able to learn a lot about the music as well.

“At first we were just listening to the songs we knew,” said Estrada. “Even as a Mexican, I wasn’t really informed about a lot of artists and music but I’ve been able to grow and learn more and it’s been a great experience.”

The music chosen for the students to perform is mostly traditional mariachi music but they often try to incorporate new popular music into their set. His personal favorite that the students play is “El Relámpago.”

Perez states his most cherished moment as a director is seeing the songs he teaches the students come to life on stage.

Estefani Estrada, trumpet/vocals, Ivan Perez, director, Isabella Olivarez, violin
(photo: Sal Castro

The students enjoy this aspect of Mariachi Los Potrillos but also find a lot of joy in the bond they’ve formed with their fellow performers.

“When I first joined, I didn’t know anyone here, but the more we practiced and had late rehearsals, they became my best friends and now we know everything about each other,” said Isabella Olivarez, violinist. “I’ve made a lot of lasting connections with this group.”

While Estrada and Olivarez don’t plan to pursue music or mariachi as a career, both agree these experiences will stay with them forever and they hope to stay connected with music.

McAllen Memorial High School music mural (photo: Sal Castro