Mexican Classics, Corridos, and a Plaza Filled With Mariachi: The Sounds of Solidarity in Uvalde
Standing under a canopy of trees at the center of Uvalde’s town square, more than 40 mariachi musicians lifted their instruments and sang in unison one afternoon in June, their voices brawny and unwavering. The music, a swell of trumpets, violins, and guitar-like vihuelas, soared across the lush fountain park that, in the weeks after the tragic shooting at Robb Elementary School, has become a memorial and gathering place for a community in mourning. Crowds of journalists and grieving loved ones huddled around as the mariachis serenaded them with classics such as Juan Gabriel’s “Amor Eterno” and Cornelio Reyna’s “Te Vas Angel Mio,” the songs echoing down several blocks. The musicians performed while facing 21 white crosses that stand in the park to honor the 19 children and two teachers killed during the attack, playing loudest for them.
Most of the musicians had arrived on a bus from San Antonio, about 85 miles to the west of Uvalde, though some drove themselves in a makeshift musical caravan. They were brought together through a Facebook post written by Anthony Medrano, a dancer-turned-mariachi-violinist. He’d logged onto a local community Facebook page where mariachi musicians post events and calls for gig players, and he’d shared an idea that his friend, the Chicanx contemporary artist Cruz Ortiz, had come up with: “Maybe we can get a couple of guys to go over to Uvalde and just do some songs, as a symbolic gesture to stand with the community.” Ortiz and Medrano had teamed up before — they’d rallied mariachi musicians for a tribute to the late Vicente Fernandez last year — and thought a few people might make the hour-plus trek to Uvalde with them. Hours later, nearly 50 musicians had replied, promising to go.
Like so many people, a lot of them had been horrified after hearing that an 18-year-old gunman opened fire on Robb Elementary in the deadliest school shooting since Sandy Hook in 2012. The details that have come to light in recent weeks are harrowing. According to an updated timeline from the Texas Department of Public Safety, officers arrived at the scene within minutes of the shooter, but they waited in the hallway and delayed confrontation for more than an hour. The gunman locked himself inside adjoining fourth-grade classrooms 111 and 112 with the victims, some of whom placed whispered 911 calls and begged police to help them. The police response has spurred multiple investigations, and it’s been called an “abject failure” by the director of the Texas Department of Public Safety. Every student in classroom 111 died, and their teacher Arnfulo Reyes, who was shot multiple times, said in a televised interview that in that moment, he’d felt abandoned by the people who were supposed to protect him.
Musicians and artists who have visited Uvalde want to make sure members of the community don’t feel forgotten again. They’ve offered support, planned benefits and festivals, and released music to honor the victims. Some have comforted the community with troves of Mexican songs and traditions that speak to the deep roots of the community: The culture there is inextricably tied to Mexico, the border resting just 75 miles away. The town of about 15,000 people is predominantly Mexican American — Uvalde County, according to the last census, is 72 percent Latino — with a history of defending its heritage. (Robb Elementary was the site of student walkouts in the 1970s after widespread discrimination against Mexicans.) That historical and geographical context shapes Uvalde’s musical identity. Rock and country radio are popular, but so are the sweeping accordions and bajos of norteño and Tejano bands. Cumbia often blasts out of cars. And though there aren’t as many mariachi outfits as a big city like San Antonio, they’re not uncommon at birthdays and family events — Robb Elementary School even had opportunities for kids to play mariachi music.
The town’s homegrown musicians are a source of pride. A few years ago, Uvalde put up several murals dedicated to its local heroes. Emblazoned across the side of a building on W Nopal Street is a 40-foot mural of the Grammy-winning norteño band Los Palominos. James Arreola and his brothers formed the band after their father, also a musician in Uvalde, started teaching them everything he knew. “We started playing local, doing all the church bazaars and backyard parties and garage parties,” he remembers. He moved to a different part of Texas, but he goes back to Uvalde often, and he’s always cherished how supportive of Los Palominos the local community has been.
Ortiz is familiar with all the murals, the landmarks, the parks, and the gas stations in Uvalde. As a kid, his family would go and down highway 90 between El Paso and San Antonio, and Uvalde was where they’d stop to break up the drive. What happened felt personal. Ortiz had been painting in his studio when he heard there was an active shooter situation at Robb Elementary. The news rocked him; he’d spent 15 years as an elementary and high school art teacher in Texas, and his wife teaches, too. “We’re the ones that tell the kids to get under the desk,” he says. “We used to go through those drills.”
Cruz jumped in his car the next day and headed straight to Uvalde. When he arrived, it was a different place: eerily quiet, though he noticed barbecue smoke rising out from people’s backyards. He realized families were consoling one another by cooking — something that felt profoundly Mexican to him. But other parts of the town — specifically, the site of the crime — had been taken over by other forces. There were cops and cameras everywhere. Families had created a makeshift memorial in front of a brick sign with the school’s name on it, and Cruz saw children trying to bring bouquets and stuffed animals for the classmates they’d lost. He says officers stopped them from walking too far and placed the little gifts themselves.
“People were bringing flowers, but you couldn’t go straight to the sign. Then the DPS officers — the same guys who didn’t go in — were taking the flowers from the families and walking them over,” Ortiz remembers. “And, oh, that disgusted me so much.” To him, it said so much about how the authorities determined people’s lives in Uvalde, how their decisions impacted the community in the hardest time: “The community wasn’t even allowed to grieve in a manner that we know.” He kept thinking, “How can we reestablish us here?”
That’s when he called Medrano and shared his idea for the mariachi ride. Maybe music would be one way to shift the balance, to support people, and to give them a way to express insurmountable pain through the culture that felt most familiar.
Medrano has always understood how mariachi music can unlock people’s most intimate emotions. His first memories with mariachi music involve his father, who’d been a corpsman in Vietnam. He never talked about what he’d been through; he’d just blast mariachi songs on an 8-track to process things he couldn’t say out loud. “He would listen to it with alcohol, to release his hurt,” Medrano says.
Medrano started out as a folk dancer in award-winning troupes before picking up the violin and joining the mariachi world. He’s played everywhere — at major showcases, at the Hollywood Bowl — and his music is often the soundtrack for joyous celebrations, like weddings and quinceañeras. However, mariachi musicians also play a profound role in the rituals of death, a duty Medrano takes with the utmost gravity. “Part of our calling is also to be there at the end of life. We are called on to console, to grieve, to send off the ones who have passed away,” he says. “Generations have been doing that, so it’s in our DNA already.”
There are other musical forms in Mexican culture that offer ways to bear witness, to remember. While planning the mariachi visit, Ortiz began thinking about the beauty of corridos, vivid, guitar-driven ballads that have always been a way to preserve stories and memories. A corrido, he felt, could be a way to document what had happened — and to give people in town something just for them. He wrote “El Corrido de los Angeles de Uvalde,” dedicated to the community. Over the past few weeks, Medrano and musician Juan Ortiz composed the music for the corrido and on Monday, they released a recorded version, performed by Mariachi Campanas de America.
More efforts to support the community are in the works. For the past 25 years, Arreola and his bandmates have been at the center of Palomino Fest & Pro Rodeo, a three-day celebration during Labor Day Weekend that takes place at Uvalde County Fairplex. Musical acts from both the U.S. and Mexico perform as part of a lineup packed with tribute bands, rock and country outfits, and Tejano, cumbia, and norteño stars, who have included Ramón Ayala in the past. For Los Palominos, the event has always been a way of paying back the community: The profits go to a scholarship they started for students at Southwest Texas Junior College, which now manages the festival. While plans are still coming together for this year’s iteration, Arreola can’t imagine the festival happening without acknowledging the victims and their families. “It wouldn’t be right. We owe it to the community to pay tribute somehow on our behalf, on behalf of the college, on everyone in Uvalde,” he says.
Arreola has returned to Uvalde in recent weeks, and the emotion is palpable every time he goes back. “I feel that we’re facing a long road of recovery,” he says. “There’s sadness. People are angry because of not getting answers to what happened, and I can understand people’s frustrations and grief. This wasn’t supposed to happen.”
Videos of the mariachi ride have ricocheted across the internet, the photos just one example of deep solidarity with Uvalde. The day of the visit, Cruz Ortiz watched as the musicians stood in charro suits adorned with tiny medallions that glistened in the sun. The group included people of all ages, even seven-year-old Mateo Lopez, one of the country’s youngest mariachi musicians. Their voices came together during the heart-wrenching lines of the mariachi staple “Un Día a la Vez,” which ends with a mournful plea: “Help me today, I want to live one day at a time.”
Once they’d finished, each musician paid respects in their own way. Medrano wanted to spend a few minutes alone at every cross. At one of them, a group of women stood nearby, wearing T-shirts that said, “Lexi, We Miss You.” Medrano told them he was sorry for everything that had happened. “They said, ‘This is our niece,’” he says. They pointed out her grandmother nearby.
He saw other people who’d brought chairs from home and planted them on a lawn area, as though they didn’t want to leave. One woman sat on a bench next to the crosses, holding a string of rosary beads in her hand. “I could see her fingers pushing the beads as she was doing her prayer,” Medrano remembers. The emotion welled up in him, bursting like a dam. “It was very heavy,” he says, his voice breaking. “I cried. I cried in front of every cross. I got angry at every cross — not for them, but for what happened to them. I apologized at every cross … I apologized on behalf of myself and on behalf of society for not protecting them.”