Some years back my former publisher with the Tucson Citizen, Michael Chihak, spoke at a monthly meeting about the value of showing up and doing your job.
As I work on The Mariachi Miracle I more and more see what he was talking about.
There will be many outcomes to this project, the film and book the most obvious of them.
But there will also be an unprecedented archive of photos and video of what has transpired in the mariachi world since I started this project.
Last weekend I got my first extended glimpse into how valuable that archive might be as I quick scanned my way through 18 hard drives of video clips shot over the past 6-8 years. My intent was to search for video of this year’s sole Mariachi Aztlán de Pueblo High School graduate, Yasmine Durazo, to pull together some clips as a special presentation for her as she plays her last formal concert with the group On May 18, 2017.
Yasmine has been special to me for a long time. A talented vocalist and violinist, she has the heart and soul of the young mariachi student today. She is as passionate about her music making as she is a natural talent, and she cultivates her gifts with concerted, hard work.
But she’s also special to me because I happened to film her on her very first day as a new recruit to Mariachi Aztlán. And she is the first person I have literally on tape from first day to graduation, with many stops in between.
Aztlán has an interesting way of bringing in new members. Obviously those graduating will not be able to play at their own graduation. So in the spring, new replacements are recruited through a process of blind audition. The judges can’t see the player behind the curtain. They can only hear them play and sing. Talent alone dictates who joins the group.
But once chosen, while still at the close of their year of middle school, they are asked to come to rehearsals in the evening for the Pueblo High graduation ceremony. It is Mariachi Aztlán that performs at Pueblo’s graduation, playing the traditional Pomp and Circumstance of Sir Edward Elgar that has become universally associated with graduations, as well as the more culturally relevant Las Golondrinas.
But this first rehearsal with the new recruits is much more than learning the music they will play on Pueblo’s football field in a few weeks. It’s a bonding experience with the group. It’s a nurturing and training event.
And just as Yasmine was groomed for her new role by one of the graduating violinists back in 2013, so last week she was sharing performance tips and expertise she learned on-the-job with new recruits and younger members of Aztlán.
I was on the prowl for clips of Yasmine on her first day to include in the montage I was assembling, as well as highlights of her time with Aztlan. Naturally I was looking for folders bearing the Aztlán name, but also searching for footage of the many other events the group had played for. Obviously there was the mariachi conference, but also a zillion fundraisers for various groups and causes that it added its talents to. And there were special community events, awards, and so on, that Yasmine might pop up on. And of course two trips to San Francisco where Mariachi Aztlán served as inspiration to the Bay Area’s fledgling mariachi programs.
It was a lot of footage to go through, and I found plenty of Yasmine along the way. But what I also discovered were things I had no clue about when I was filming. Kids who would become members of the current youth mariachis back when they played with elementary and middle school groups. Current teachers when they were kids. Transplants to Tucson from when they were just first-time visitors. A whole lot of history I could never comprehend back when I shot it. And doubtless there is a whole lot more information there for different observers that even I am not seeing.
I showed up and did my job. I spent hundreds of hours shooting, inputting, backing up and appending metadata to photos and footage, the latter more so later in the process as my ideas evolved. I see my own growth as well, from quick, unsteady footage at the start to slower, smoother shooting as time progressed. I see my skill as a still photographer improve, and my technique in accurately capturing sound become better over time. I still have a long way to go, but there is evidence of progress.
There are the interviews as well, which tell their own story about how my understanding of the youth mariachi cosmos evolved over time. I see strangers become friends, and a deep appreciation grow for both key figures and bit part players.
In its own way, this film and photo archive may become the most important part of this project. My intent is to see it turned over to the Arizona Historical Society, the University of Arizona Library Special Collections division, and the Library of Congress in hopes that it will be made available to both scholars and the general public for their individual purposes. There is so much more there than just a story of mariachis and a bunch of music. There is a great amount of social and historical information included in this. It will take others well beyond my lifespan to understand what it all means.
I find myself thinking of the wonderful Tucson commercial photographer Frank Martniez, who I dedicated my El Casino Ballroom film to. Mr. Martniez was a man with a limp who was seen at virtually every Mexican American gathering of note, from family parties to cultural celebrations and so much more. I would like a dime for every person I interviewed for prior films who, when asked if they had any photos from the days of the stories they’d shared with me, proudly produced a treasured image captured by Mr. Martinez. I doubt he understood the magnitude of what his lens was gathering any more than I can. But I wonder sometimes if he ever looked back on his body of work and smiled to himself about what he came to realize was there.
I have little doubt that if I have the financial resources and good enough health I will continue to add to the archive long after the book and film are done and various ancillary projects are complete.
I will continue to show up and do my job, and leave it for others to find meaning in what my camera has captured.