Mariachis ride into Uvalde with songs of heartache and hope
By Rick Rojas
A bus rolled in off the dusty highway and into the heart of a town mired in sorrow.
Outsiders had sent so much to Uvalde lately: food, flowers, millions of dollars in donations, prayers — gestures, large and small, meant to acknowledge a grief that no one believed they could cure. Like the others, compelled to do something, dozens of mariachi musicians had traveled from San Antonio with the hope that they could deliver a dose of comfort.
In the square that has become an expression of Uvalde’s pain, where 21 crosses were erected to mark the lives stolen by the gunman who stormed into an elementary school, the musicians gathered along the edge of a fountain and started to play, drawing on the aching words of the revered Mexican musician Juan Gabriel.
Tú eres la tristeza de mis ojos
Que lloran en silencio por tu amor
You are the sadness in my eyes
That cry in silence for your love
“They don’t pet you,” Anthony Medrano, one of the performers, said of the lyrics. “They cut you.”
Healing requires honesty, however lacerating, he said. A mariachi performance such as this one was meant to be a journey, starting in darkness and climbing closer to the light.
Mariachi music — with its trumpets, strings and serenades — often conjures images of jubilation or romance, its costumed performers playing at quinceaneras, weddings, anniversaries and birthdays. Yet, in truth, performers say, the music traces the arc of life, as adept at accompanying the depths of anguish as soaring triumph.
“We as mariachis are there for every part of a person’s life,” Medrano, who helped coordinate the trip, told the other performers as they hit the road. “We’re called to step up and step in — and help comfort families and help comfort community. That’s what we’re going to do today.
The performance came together with a post on Facebook that was circulated around the mariachi community in South Texas, encouraging musicians to meet in a parking lot on the edge of downtown San Antonio on Wednesday afternoon. Roughly three dozen got on the bus there. Others made the trip on their own. One group drove in from Eagle Pass, a border city an hour southwest of Uvalde.
The pull to join the performance was strong. “They look like our children,” Sandra Gonzalez, a violin player, said of the victims. “The faces look familiar.”
The musicians brought trumpets, violins, a saxophone, little five-string instruments called vihuelas and much larger guitarrónes mexicanos.
And although Uvalde is only a little more than an hour away from San Antonio, they also filled the bus with snacks: ice chests packed with water, beer, ham, cheese and bolillos, boxes of chips, and cardboard carriers with large plastic cups of sweet tea from Bill Miller Bar-B-Q, a chain that is something of a San Antonio institution.
The musicians ranged in age from a 7-year-old boy to those in their 60s and older. One family had three generations represented. There were music educators, real estate professionals, a medical student. Gonzalez is a nurse in a newborn intensive care unit.
“You look at this bus,” said Roland San Miguel, one of the performers. “You see the diversity. That’s my dad right there.”
“It shows that they’re not alone,” he added. “Uvalde is not alone.”
The performers are acquainted with grief. Members of the mariachi community often gather to play at funerals for parents, spouses and other relatives of performers who have died. And as the coronavirus pandemic ripped through the Mexican American community, mariachi groups were called on to perform. “We have played so many funerals,” Gonzalez said.
She saw the solace they provided to those families. “We gave that comfort,” she said. She knew what it meant to her and her mother and sisters when mariachis played at her father’s funeral several years ago.
Still, there was apprehension as the bus passed through Castroville and Hondo and approached Uvalde. “This is a first for us,” San Miguel said. “This magnitude of tragedy.”
There had been no rehearsals. There was not even a list of songs they would perform. An experienced mariachi performer is expected to have instant recall of an expansive catalog of songs. “There are probably 200 or 300 you’ve forgotten,” San Miguel joked.
The bus reached Uvalde and lumbered into the town square.
“We’ll call out the songs as we go,” Medrano said as everyone started clambering off, “and do what we do.”
After the shooting, a memorial sprouted in the square and has kept growing. Flowers, wilting in the heat, piled higher and higher, with stuffed animals, candles and American flags. Messages were inscribed on posters and in chalk on the sidewalk. “Fly high, lil angels,” one said.
The mariachis performed “Amor Eterno,” a wrenching Gabriel song written about his agony over losing his mother. It was recognizable to many from the first few notes.
The heat was starting to lift, and the pecan trees filtered out the harsh sun. A crowd gathered around the square. Some brought lawn chairs and their dogs. A few dabbed their eyes, quietly weeping.
But just as Medrano promised, the music seemed to give those who gathered a respite, even if for just a moment. San Miguel led some of the musicians in an instrumental rendition of “Amazing Grace.” He remembered the comfort he felt when the song was played at his brother’s funeral last year.
His father, Grammy Award-winning mariachi performer Juan Ortiz, crooned another song that many in the crowd knew instantly: “Un Dia a La Vez.” The song’s consolation: Healing was not here, and no one knew when it would come. But Uvalde could summon the resilience to move forward.
Un dia a la vez, dios mio
y es lo que pido
dame la fuerza para vivir
un dia a la vez
One day at a time, my God,
and that is what I ask of you,
give me the strength to live
one day at a time.