Film and TV

The Sweet Sounds of Mariachi High

Mariachi High was directed by Ilana Trachtman.

Documentary filmmaker Ilana Trachtman became a sort of high school mariachi groupie during the seven years that she spent planning and filming Mariachi High. The film follows Mariachi Halcon, a group of students at Zapata High School, from a small Texas border town, as they prepare for two prestigious competitions, going from auditions to rehearsals and on to performances.

It was while working on a separate project on the value of arts education that Trachtman learned about mariachi music programs in schools with large Mexican-American student populations. "It was a revelation," she tells Art Attack. "In New York City, to us mariachi music meant Mexican restaurants and people who you hoped wouldn't come and sing at your table."

After seeing high school mariachi bands, Trachtman realized that the groups were filled with talented kids that were beating the odds, staying out of trouble and away from drugs and gangs. Trachtman wanted to explore how and why they did it.

Mariachi High shows the group working hard, moving forward, suffering setbacks, rebounding, alternately behaving like professionals and then behaving like regular giggly teenagers.

"Our agenda from the beginning was to do a year in the life of a high school mariachi band. With that idea in mind, we had kinda like a casting call. We researched the leading bands in the country. One thing is for sure, there's nothing worse than bad mariachi music. We looked at the schools that were consistently winning the big competitions. That way we knew we would be able to listen to the music for a year during filming and then another year in the edit room.

"Then we wanted a band that had a very charismatic director, because the director would be a main character. We wanted a band that had appealing kids, with their own stories to tell. With a documentary, you can't predict the events, but you can predict factors that will impact events. We were also looking for something that would be unexpected, which meant a rural school. That led us to the Rio Grande valley area."

After visiting some ten schools and meeting with the students and directors, Trachtman decided on Zapata high school. "I was told that Zapata had trouble with gangs and border violence and drugs and all that; it was like these kids were immune to it all."

The students at Zapata High School had taken top awards at various statewide contests over the last several years, but during the time Trachtman and her crew followed the group, things weren't so certain. Several seniors, leaders in the group, had graduated and younger students were stepping up to fill those positions. It proves to be a bumpy road.

Trachtman is pleased to be able to showcase the group. "I'm really happy that we got to show this community that nobody ever sees. Who ever heard of Zapata, Texas? And now the entire country is going to spend an hour watching them."

But even with the documentary's success, the news is not all good. "Since we finished filming, the funding has been cut dramatically. They are going to almost no competitions anymore. The mariachi director is now leading up both the band and the mariachi, so he has literally half of the time he had before. This last year, the only competition they went to was the state competition, where they came in second. There wasn't funding for them to go to anywhere else. It's really sad, especially since it's so clear that it does so much good."

Mariachi High screens at 7 p.m. Wednesday at Talento Bilingue de Houston, 333 South Jensen. Filmmaker Ilana Trachtman will be in attendance. For information, visit the PBS Web site or call 713-222-1213. The screening is free, but you must RSVP. The film opens the PBS Summer Arts Festival with a televised screening at 9 p.m. on June 29 on local PBS channel KUHF.

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Olivia Flores Alvarez