A Championship Season in Mariachi Country

Every year along the Texas border, high school teams battle it out in one of the nation’s most intense championship rivalries. But they’re not playing football.

On a hot Monday in late August 2021, Marcos Zárate was starting his second week as the lead director of the mariachi program at Rio Grande City High School in Texas. In his practice room, 17 students in jeans and school T-shirts stood in a half-circle, playing songs from memory. Dozens of trophies lined one wall, and across another, someone had hung a cheery hand-painted banner spelling out the team’s name, “Mariachi Cascabel.” The pandemic had kept the young musicians home the past 18 months, and now, fresh out of lockdown, they were eager to play as a group again — to feel the adrenaline rush and transformation that came with being on a stage.

Dressed all in black, his thick hair gelled back, Zárate, who was 40, paced the room, listening intently. “Stop!” he said as the students tore through a huapango called “A la Luz de los Cocuyos.” There were problems.

“Those trills, they need to come out a lot stronger than that. Careful at the beginning — ta ta ta ta ta — I want to hear all the notes together at the same volume. I don’t want to hear ta ta TA ta TA ta TA. Very defined. OK? From the top!”

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