Vibrant guitar, violin and harp music echoed through the corridors of the California State Fair’s Expo Center Sunday where hundreds were gathered to watch the inaugural Youth Mariachi Competition.
Almost every seat in the PG&E Center Stage area was taken, and many onlookers stood in direct sunlight to watch students from various California schools dance, sing, and play instruments all while donning traditional mariachi uniforms, called trajes de charro.
The State Fair aims to reflect the Californian experience, and officials said that this competition was a good opportunity to highlight the “rich tradition of mariachi music that has helped weave the social and cultural tapestry of California,” according to a news release.
Ten different youth groups from cities including Anaheim, Salinas and Oxnard gathered to compete for a chance to win a first-place title and $5,000 - but for most performers and onlookers, the event was more about celebrating and sharing traditional Mexican culture.
Most groups that participated had performers with a wide age range. But the members of one group - Mariachi Juvenil Alisal from Salinas - had only elementary school-aged musicians. Their guitar instructor, Christian Madrigal, said he thinks that mariachi helps his students connect with their parents, many of whom come from Mexico and love mariachi themselves.
“I think it’s important for them to learn the things that their parents love, and the things that they grow up with,” Madrigal said.
The program started in November, and Madrigal said his students have only been playing for nine months. This performance, he said, was the biggest one yet for his young musicians.
“It’s really nice to see the growth of the students in all aspects,” he said. “Music gives them a lot of discipline, they need to learn to practice every day, they need to learn how to take care of their uniform and be good students.
“They learn how to be a team -- if only one person is playing and the others are distracted, you can’t have mariachi music.”
Tim Aza, who traveled from Stockton to watch the festivities, said that events like help shine a light on the “rich value of Mexican culture.” Aza said that he performs mariachi himself, and that his decision to join his group has helped him open himself and learn about his own cultural background.
Seventeen-year-old Angelica Garcia, who plays violin and harp for Mariachi Inlakech in Oxnard, said her involvement in mariachi has helped her connect with her culture as well. She said she got involved because she was participating in baile folklórico - a traditional Mexican ballet-style dance typically set to songs that depict local folklore.
For some, full immersion in one’s culture is not an everyday experience, but Garcia said mariachi allows her to experience that engagement constantly.
“I’m thinking of majoring in Chicano studies because through the (Inlakech Cultural Arts) center I’ve realized that it’s what I’m passionate about,” Garcia said. “I think it has helped me find a sense of cultural identity and my self-identity, who I am as a person.”