Los Lobos mariachi of Palmview may have been renamed 6A co-champs at the 2015 state competition, but this feat is only a note in the 33-year history the La Joya ISD program has established. What began as a class in an off-campus welding shop, with makeshift wall insulators has evolved into an internationally recognized sound.
Palmview’s sister school, La Joya High School, was awarded fourth at the Mexican American School Board Association state competition, and Mariachi Sol of Juarez-Lincoln High took home 11th place. Since the split from a single campus in 2008, this is the first year all three La Joya schools competed at state.
But Los Lobos almost didn’t claim their division title. Palmview was initially awarded second place, but several directors at the MASBA competition noticed discrepancies in the judging. After bringing the issue to the MASBA’s attention, a motion was made for Los Lobos mariachi to be renamed co-champs alongside McAllen High School.
“This is an important competition and it was necessary to let them know what had happened,” Palmview Director Mayra Garcia said. “But I never in a million years thought anybody would pass a motion for my kids to become co-champions. So that was a great surprise for me. I think my kids deserve this.”
Los Lobos has qualified for state for the last five years and won in 2011. In the 33-year legacy the La Joya mariachi program has performed in France, for U.S. presidents both in the Texas and in D.C., in New Orleans and annually hosts sold-out shows. This year the group celebrates 25 years of Valley performances.
Even though MASBA is behind them, the groups continue to prepare for the next competition and their spring performances.
“It’s been an experience. Not too many groups can say that they’ve played for presidents of the U.S., vice presidents, senators, governors. You need to work hard,” said Mariachi Sol Director Emilio Cantu. “Being in these groups is very demanding and you have to keep up your grades. If they’re not passing, they can’t perform.”
Cantu was one of the founders of the program in 1982, which was the first of its kind in the Rio Grande Valley. He admitted that when the class initially came to be, he didn’t think it would grow to be what it is now. The mariachis spent about three years practicing in the dusty welding room, a few more years in a portable building behind what is now Jimmy Carter Early College and finally had their own room built in 1999 in the now La Joya High School.
“We’ve paid our dues. We went through si nada, no tenemos nada, but we made it work,” Cantu said. “Mariachi was not that popular at the time, I guess because of the stereotype of Mexican movies. But through the years we’ve changed minds.”
The program was initially created as a dropout prevention, but the doors remained open to every type of student, several of whom have gone on to pursue music education, a professional mariachi life and a career in the medical field.
Not including his stint in retirement the summer of 2007, Cantu has remained part of the LJISD mariachi program, working in both a junior high and high school setting. He’s seen most of the students pass through the mariachi program and pursue a higher education because of the discipline learned in that setting.
Two of his former students are now mariachi directors in the other high schools – Mayra Garcia of Los Lobos and Juan Carlos (Charlie) Lopez of La Joya High’s Los Coyotes.
As a former La Joya mariachi student, Lopez has seen both ends of the spectrum and wants the community to know that mariachi is not just about music.
“You’re not just teaching them mariachi, you’re teaching them confidence on stage,” 26-year-old Lopez said. “If this kid has confidence, when he goes to his English class or he has to take his STAAR test, that confidence will show. We teach them discipline.”
Among everything, the students are taught the importance of being humble. The three groups may compete against each other when they take the stage, but all three directors agree that they promote friendship among their mariachis.
“We’re all here to win, but once we’re off stage, keep in mind that we came from one program, we came from one organization, and we’re here to help out each other,” Lopez said. “And the kids understand that concept.”
When the new ruling on Palmview’s state title was announced, director Garcia made sure to tell her Los Lobos students that no matter what was said to them, they should keep their composure as they’ve always done.
Along with the rest of the Lobos, Jason Robles was thankful for the award. The junior trumpet player said that although he was proud of their second-place ranking, the first-place title makes him feel more complete. The stage is his home away from home, he said.
“When we’re on stage, any outside problems or situations in life, it all fades away. It’s a whole different world,” 17-year-old Robles said. “We don’t think about each other as individuals, but as a family and a team.”