Twenty minutes later, it was the turn of Mariachi Nuevo Santander. They followed Las Vegas Academy of the Arts, which delivered a vigorous show that made clear why the Starr County teams considered them a threat. As the announcer called Roma’s name, the room erupted in loud cheers, red pompoms shaking in the air. Roma was known for packing the house with enthusiastic supporters. The relatives of Martinez, the violinist, waved individual block letters spelling out “NANA,” her nickname. As they’d rehearsed so many times, the students walked onto the stage in bone-colored outfits with red trim and red boots. Martinez signaled with her bow, and the first song began. Roma played with a big, balanced sound and near-perfect technique, as it had done year after year under Garza. One judge, a guitarist named Jonathan Palomar, began nodding his head along to the beat.
Then the second song started. Garza had selected “Qué Bonita Es Esta Vida,” popularized by the Colombian singer Jorge Celedón and arranged for mariachi. The song pays tribute to life, which Garza found appropriate after the isolation and deaths Starr County had endured because of the pandemic. Garcia, the violinist who’d sung the national anthem at the Border Patrol ceremony, began singing: “I love the smell of the morning … ” Three students joined him in the chorus, harmonizing: “Oh, how beautiful is this life! Although sometimes it hurts so much, and despite the sorrows, there is always someone who loves us, there is always someone who takes care of us. … ”
The instrument solos followed. Christian Cano pulled his harp to the front of the stage and made his fingers dance on the strings. After playing with the violins, Martinez traded her instrument and joined the trumpeters in their group solo. As the students sang, Óscar Ortega, a judge who had been bobbing his head and tapping along to the music, now took a folded napkin and dabbed at his eyes. He’d done the same when Las Vegas Academy was performing, and now it became evident that he was wiping away tears. The judges took more notes, and when the show was over, they applauded as the audience chanted, “Roma, Roma, Roma!”
The college teams followed the high schools, so it was nighttime before the judges walked onto the stage to announce the high school finalists. The first name they called came as a bit of a surprise — Roma’s junior-varsity group had made the cut. This was an impressive feat for Garza, who had coached both teams in the same amount of time the other directors had trained one. The next four announcements were not wholly unexpected. Mariachi Cascabel, Mariachi Grulla de Plata and Mariachi Nuevo Santander’s varsity team had made it, too, along with Mariachi Nuevo Cascabel from Sharyland High School, also from the Valley. Then, as Zárate had predicted, the sixth and last group was called: Mariachi Internacional from Las Vegas Academy of the Arts.
That four of six finalists were from Starr County was another impressive feat. The judges explained that today’s scores would be tossed out, and each group would compete from scratch tomorrow before three new judges. After three months of preparation, it all would come down to one last performance.
The last day of the festival began on a promising note for Starr County: two of Grulla’s singers placed third in the vocal competition. All that was left for the directors that afternoon was to give the teams, now dressed and awaiting their warm-ups, a final message. Each director approached these moments differently. Rodriguez gathered his students in a hallway to tell them that, after reviewing a video of the previous day’s performance, he wanted to make some tweaks. “As a director, I’m asking for you to respect my decisions,” he said. The students nodded, and he led them backstage to their dressing room, where they would run through parts of the show he felt needed tightening.
In the dressing room next door, the Rio Grande City team’s warm-up had a welcome interruption when Carlos Martínez, the director of Mariachi Vargas, popped in to wish them well. He delivered an impromptu pep talk in Spanish. “For me, this is the most beautiful thing,” he said of mariachi music, “and how wonderful that being that you were born here in the United States, you’re continuing with our traditions from Mexico.” He encouraged the students to enjoy themselves onstage. When he left, Zárate decided to let his team relax in the minutes remaining before the show. He grabbed a guitarrón and joined the students as he sang “Mi Tesoro” — “my treasure” — and one of his assistants improvised a wistful violin solo.