WASHINGTON – Mariachi is in Francisco Loera’s blood.
His uncle and father were musicians in Mexico. His grandfather was a mariachi. His grandmother still plays mariachi. He has been playing mariachi guitar since he was a student at McAllen High School.
“It’s just who I am,” said Leora, 41. “Once it gets into you it doesn’t go out. You cannot leave it. It’s that kind of thing. It represents who I am.”
Today, he’s a lecturer at theUniversity of Texas-Pan Americanand is director of the Mariachi Aztlán group, which is performing this week at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival in Washington.
The annual festival on the National Mall showcases different aspects of world culture through exhibits, performances, food and hands-on activities. This year the festival is celebrating the 150th anniversary of land-grant universities and is showcasing groups like Mariachi Aztlán from around the country. The festival is also exploring creativity through the AIDS quilt and looking at city culture in Washington’s Anacostia neighborhood.
The performing group from UTPA consists of 16 mariachis who are undergraduate and graduate students from UTPA. There are seven violins, two trumpets, one guitarón (a bass-like acoustic instrument), one vihuela (a stringed instrument smaller than a guitar) and a harp.
Dahlia Guerra, dean of the UTPA College of Arts and Humanities, founded the group in 1989 to promote pride in Hispanic culture.
“We promote education through the program and promote pride in our culture,” Guerra said. “Throughout the past 25 years, the mariachi program has performed as musical ambassadors for the university to create a culture of understanding between two nations, two cultures.”
As one of the most celebrated collegiate mariachi groups in the country, Mariachi Aztlán has performed across the country, in Mexico and in Canada. The group played for President Barack Obama in the White House in 2010 and performed alongside the Houston Grand Opera. Leora said there are plans to go to Puerto Rico and possibly Spain.
“We’re always having fun,” Leora said. “We’re the type of group, we never stop.”
For UTPA rising senior and trumpet player David Moreno, 22, a music major who was born in Monterrey, Mexico, playing mariachi is an opportunity to share his Mexican culture. He said that being able to play at the Smithsonian festival is exciting because of the many different groups that took part.
“It’s my heritage and it’s a feeling. Sometimes it’s indescribable,” Moreno said. “When my parents or other family members see us, they feel the power, the excitement.”
Karina Lopez, 25, is a graduate student and violinist who has been with the group for seven years. She is mariachi director at Robert Vella High School in Edinburg, Texas.
“I feel that we can reach out to students who just immigrated from Mexico just by the music,” she said. “I feel connected with my Mexican heritage. I also feel like I can reach out to the community.”
Mirelle Acuña, 26, has performed with the group for nine years as a violinist and vocalist. She teaches music at BL Garza Middle School in Edinburg and teaches mariachi at Edinburg North High School.
For Acuña, mariachi is all about emotion. From yelps and chants during songs to expressive hand gestures while singing, the mariachis clearly enjoy what they do.
“It’s just a kind of music that gives you the freedom to express yourself on stage,” Acuña said. “The music is different, you can have a sad song and express yourself like that and you can have a happy song and smile and laugh and sing, dance, things like that.”
Reach reporter Charles Scudder at firstname.lastname@example.org or 202-326-9865.