Genisis Tarango’s braces glinted behind her bright red lipstick as she belted out a grito, the passionate yell synonymous with mariachi singing, on Saturday evening outside Casa Bonita.
Ten of her fellow ensemble musicians, all decked out in traditional Mexican attire, played trumpet, vihuela, guitar, guitarrón and violin behind her, exuberant.
The performers’ families and friends encircled them, emanating pride as robust as their cheers, outside the newly reopened restaurant in Lakewood. The youth ensemble Mariachi Estelares de Colorado — the first all-state mariachi ensemble in Colorado and one of only a few nationwide — was preparing for its more formal debut on Saturday, a free performance at the 2023 Viva Southwest Mariachi Festival at Denver’s Levitt Pavilion.
This practice set — the cohort’s first public concert — found the group serenading Casa Bonita patrons as they awaited entrance into the iconic pink eatery. But there was something more foundational, more ancestral afoot beyond just a complimentary pre-dinner show.
“You feel a true connection to your culture when you’re playing its music,” said 18-year-old Tarango, who sings and plays vihuela, a traditional mariachi instrument that’s sort of a mashup of a guitar and a lute. “It’s something money can’t buy. It makes me emotional to feel a connection to my roots.”
“A place in the sun”
Lorenzo Trujillo has been steeped in mariachi music since he was a kid singing and playing violin and guitar at north Denver’s Our Lady of Guadalupe Church. After storied careers in music, law and education — Trujillo said he implemented one of the first accredited mariachi programs in the state at Adams City High School — the music man is leading Mariachi Estelares.
All-state programs usually require students to audition, selecting the best of the best in the state to perform together. Colorado has all-state jazz, choir, band and orchestra programs, Trujillo said, but mariachi was absent until last year when he helped shepherd it into existence.
About 40 students from across the state threw their proverbial sombreros in the ring to join the all-state mariachi crew sponsored by Metropolitan State University of Denver and the Latino Cultural Arts Center. A panel of MSU Denver faculty whittled the competition down to 11 musicians and singers earlier this year.
“Music departments are usually all about Beethoven, Bach and jazz,” Trujillo said. “Hey, how about us Latinos? I want them to have a place — a place in the sun.”
Trujillo is an affiliate professor in MSU Denver’s music department, where he founded the school’s mariachi program. To show students how to strum a guitarrón or toot a trumpet is one thing, but Trujillo said it’s just as vital to teach the culture.
When Trujillo bestowed the Casa Bonita-financed moños, or traditional Mexican bow ties, to the musicians of Mariachi Estelares as part of their uniforms, he held a ceremony where he spoke about respect, pride and self-value.
“I tell them they are important,” Trujillo said. “They are important beyond themselves. They are important to this whole community because they represent not only themselves but their grandparents, parents, brothers and sisters. They represent the past, the present and a trajectory toward the future — and they do it with every breath.”
The language of music
When violin player William Trevizo, 21, looks into his audience’s eyes, he experiences the sublime.
“It’s like I am playing the same songs that people have been playing for generations, and there is a connection where you just feel the music and you feel all the years people have been singing along,” Trevizo said. “It is this actual, special feeling.”
Trevizo didn’t have the opportunity to learn violin when he lived in Mexico, but after coming to the United States he was excited to take up the instrument in school about eight years ago. Now he performs under Trujlllo’s tutelage with the all-state ensemble.
But mariachi is not just for Latinos, Trevizo said. The spirited music is for everyone, he said, and inspires joy, dancing and emotion no matter the listener.
Trujillo agrees, noting the diversity within Mariachi Estelares. While mariachi is traditionally male-dominated, Trujillo said his group is equally balanced among young men and women and features people from all walks of life.
Bright Ansah, 21, is a Black trumpet player with a singing solo in Mariachi Estelares’ upcoming performance. It’s hard to imagine as Ansah croons in Spanish that he’s not a fluent speaker and is in the process of learning the language.
“The language barrier is the hardest part of being in the group, but the music brings us together. We all communicate through the music,” Ansah said.
Ansah took Trujillo’s mariachi course at MSU Denver and stuck with it because he said the style of music excited him.
“I want everybody in my classes,” Trujillo said. “Every ethnicity, every political ideology, every gender. We’re singing about universal things like love, deception, happiness, joy, birth, death. These songs are stories of people — of heroes and heroines. Everyone can relate to that.”
“It is who we are”
Mariachi Estelares is opening for all-female, Latin-Grammy-winning mariachi band Flor de Toloache on Saturday at the Viva Southwest Mariachi Festival. The festival, put on by the Latino Cultural Arts Center and MSU Denver, is a free concert at Levitt Pavilion in Denver’s Ruby Hill Park designed to bring mariachi music to the masses. (RVSP at levittdenver.org.)
“It is vital we highlight and celebrate excellence in our communities,” said Alfredo Reyes, the Latino Cultural Arts Center’s executive director, while setting up for the Casa Bonita performance on Saturday. “You hear about the sob stories or the violence in our Latino communities, but you don’t hear enough about the talent and the dedication of our exceptional youth.”
Mariachi Estelares members have been rehearsing for the festival from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. every Saturday, memorizing the multi-song repertoire that they perform without reading music in front of them. Since the show is taking place on Mexican Independence Day, Trujillo said their set is themed “musica de la revolución.”
Trujillo’s students say their mariachi maestro is responsible for a revolution of his own.
“He is growing our Latino culture right here in Colorado,” violinist Trevizo said.
Trujillo delights in watching his current and former students start spin-off mariachis of their own.
“When you have kids doing something they really love and really want to do, attendance rates go up, achievement rates go up, self-esteem goes up,” Trujillo said. “It is powerful. It is who we are.”
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