There’s a competition framework to “Going Varsity in Mariachi,” but it’s almost immediately apparent that the students at Edinburg North High School aren’t really competing against anyone but themselves. This isn’t because of talent, though they are nowhere near as polished as Roma High School, perennially one of the top mariachi bands in Texas, or as tradition-bound as La Joya High, which has restored civic pride in a town known for crime through the championships they’ve won, but rather the challenges they face as a community living along the U.S./Mexico border in the Rio Grande Valley where money doesn’t flow as freely as the river. In such a place where people are used to making the most of what’s available to them, Abel Acuna, the director of Edinburg North’s Mariachi Oro, sounds less like he’s spouting an inspirational platitude than reminding his students that they have to be resourceful when he tells them, “We have this music in our blood,” knowing that the music may be a means to an end rather than a passion all its own and success has to be measured on a greater metric than how they sound.
This allows co-directors Sam Osborn and Alejandra Vasquez to follow a time-honored track to state championships for Edinburg North, but take “Going Varsity in Mariachi” in far more interesting directions than to merely see where they place. Looking less in the direction of the entire band than honing in on a few members who can’t afford to wait until after high school to figure out their future, the film presents mariachi music as an extracurricular that can make more of an impact on those who take it than will show up on their college applications, a fact well-known by Acuna, who ended up teaching because of an inspirational instructor in his own high school years and suffered through his own trying years of marrying what he really wanted to do – mariachi music – with supporting the daughter he had at 20. Now presiding over Mariachi Oro, he is as interested in the poise of his students as much as the music they make when they’re playing, telling them they’re always performing for an audience of two when they should be able to connect with the deaf person and blind person in any given audience.
Although the school’s operating budget is briefly touched upon, with Mariachi Oro unable to afford such extra amenities as hiring composers who could help create original arrangements that other schools use to wow judges, Osborn and Vasquez seem to know you’ve seen that story before and when there’s enough money to travel and pay for trajes to be made in Monterrey, the financial stakes are wisely downplayed in favor of the personal ones for individual members such as Abby, who pins her hopes on getting a higher education to parlaying her violin skills into a music scholarship, and Drake, a senior asked to shoulder the major responsibility of keeping time for the entire band playing the guitarron, yet can’t always be counted on to show up for class. Some naturally are passionate about the music like Bella, the leader of the violin section who can’t wait for her sister to join the band, but even she’s got her eye on becoming a pharmacist soon enough and as nice as it is to hear them find harmony, seeing the students start finding the meaning in the notes coming out of their instruments, not only in terms of their collective history but what it could mean for their individual future, the film really starts to swing. In the particularly trying school year of 2021, it seems like victory enough for the band to play on and regardless of how Mariachi Oro performs against other schools, “Going Varsity in Mariachi” is winning.
“Going Varsity in Mariachi” will next screen at SXSW on March 12th at 3:15 pm at the Paramount, March 15th at 5:30 pm at the Stateside Theatre, and March 18th at 2:30 pm.