Zapata, Texas, is a town of some 5,000 people nestled in the southeast portion of the boot heel of Texas. The small town is, according to Zapata High School music director Adrian Padilla, "the gene pool for mariachi -- it must be the water." The halls of the school are filled with the strains of mariachi music, as is made clear in the PBS Summer Arts Festival documentary Mariachi High, slated to screen on PBS stations Friday.
The roughly 50-minute documentary follows the school's award-winning mariachi band members in the 2010-11 school year as they audition, practice and gear up for two major competitions: the Mariachi Vargas Extravaganza and the Texas All-State Mariachi Competition, both held in San Antonio. Along the way, the teens experience a surprising disappointment that seems to quell any hopes of a happy ending.
Ilana Trachtman, co-director and co-producer of the film, said in a phone interview this week that she hopes the film spotlights the power that mariachi music has in both decreasing the drop-out rates in school and evoking emotional responses as it relates stories of passion, love and culture.
"Mariachi keeps you in school, and that's especially true in a place like Zapata, Texas, where most kids' exposure to the outside world is almost nothing without a program like this," Trachtman said. "Band becomes a window through which these kids can see opportunities."
She said she and her partners first began discussing the project some 10 years ago. "We wanted to spend a year in the life of a mariachi band," she said. "We came up with the idea for the film and then came up with the band to profile; not the other way around as sometimes happens when you make documentaries. We were looking for a band with great members, which means they would have won a lot of competitions."
The Zapata kids did win a lot of competitions, but midway through Mariachi High, they suffer an unexpected loss, which Trachtman and her crew capture as the stunned students make their way to the bus that will take them back home in defeat.
But the film still has 20 minutes or so to play out after this scene, and not all is lost.
"As we were shooting, we kept wondering what would keep people watching if the kids won that first competition," Trachtman said. "In some ways, it was better that they did not win because the kids had a reason to keep working, and the viewers have a reason to keep watching, hoping for some kind of redemption."
Speaking by phone from Texas, Padilla said he thinks the film counters stereotypes of Mexican-American teens as gang-joining drug-dealers. Academically, his mariachi students all score in the top ten percent of their class, he said. "Mariachi encompasses a lot of things," he said. "Self-esteem is boosted. It allows them to be more outspoken and more outgoing. They are willing to try a lot of things they wouldn't otherwise have tried. Mariachi helps them blossom. Even if they are not going to be majoring in music or following a career in mariachi, it is something they will take with them the rest of their lives."
In the film, we see some of the kids as they deal with chores on the ranch, the threat of nearby drug cartels, and a potential dearth of choices regarding their futures. Most of them see mariachi as both a way to express themselves by singing somebody else's story and as a vehicle to move forward in life. One wants to be a veterinarian. Another wants to study law. A third wants to be a doctor. One, Ashley Guzman, says she wants to be a Supreme Court justice.
"How does a kid get that kind of ambition in a town of 5,000 people?" Trachtman asked of Guzman. "Because she gets to travel to places like San Antonio and Austin with the band, so those aspirations become something within reach. She developed a vision for what her life could be. Without these kinds of programs kids stay in their small towns and that is all they know. Not that this is a bad thing, but they don't have a choice because they can't picture it."
The program airs on KNME-HD 5.1 at 9 p.m. Friday.
Padilla said school districts around the nation still struggle with the notion of cutting arts programs in an effort to create a balanced budget. "I've asked our legislators here, 'Please don't cut the arts,' " he said. "This is what gets kids out and about and gets them to learn, giving them true knowledge of their culture and people. Everything is a positive about this program."
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