Our Songs of Sorrow — Why the Mariachis Felt Called to Play at Uvalde

God touched me on Wednesday this week. He sent a 9-year-old boy to me when I arrived at the square memorial for the victims of the Uvalde tragedy. Dressed in my black, studded mariachi costume, I walked purposefully across the lawn, my eyes on everything but the memorial so as not to lose it. So I could stay professional. Then this boy approached, reached out his hand and handed me a small wooden cross. “God bless you,” he said to me. He wore a “Prayers for Uvalde” t-shirt. Thanking him, I pocketed the gift, took a deep breath, and finally turned to look. Finally, I allow myself to see the 21 white crosses among the flowers, toys, notes and gifts surrounding the central fountain.

This is how my experience – the most moving of my 45 years of performance – began in this sacred place of sadness.

All my adult life, I’ve been the artist. The person who plays the violin and sings just to make people smile. I am part of a group of musicians who wear the traditional costumes of Mexico and sing the songs of our culture. We are mariachis. Our mission is to bring joy through music to family celebrations – baby showers, weddings, birthdays or just everyday celebrations. We provide the soundtrack to many lives rooted in Mexico.

But for every party we play, we also play for a funeral. And in our role as musical comforters, mariachis use the sound of swelling strings, dark refrains, and lamentable melodies to help others heal. We stand next to complete strangers in open coffins and sing songs like ‘Amor Eterno’, about endless love after a mother’s death, and ‘Te Vas Ángel Mío’ which expresses the pain of those who are left in mourning when a loved one dies. Like the clergy, we are trained for tragedy.

When I heard about the senseless massacre at Robb Elementary School, I felt like I couldn’t breathe. In the days that followed, as the number of deaths increased and more and more information came out, my shock was replaced by anger, with so many questions. I was not the only one. Cruz Ortiz, a friend and painter who, like me, lives in San Antonio, had gone to Uvalde in search of answers. Driving in his truck on the way back to San Antonio, trying to process the tragedy, Ortiz turned on the radio and mariachi music flooded the airwaves. It was then that he had an idea.

In December 2021, when Vicente “Chente” Fernández, the king of Mexican ranchera music, passed away, Ortiz had joined me and some mariachi friends for an impromptu gathering to mourn and honor Chente’s life by playing through his entire discography. . It was our turn to console ourselves with song.

Ortiz called me to ask if we could do the same for the Uvalde community. Not to impose our music, but to offer it as a gift, as a means of dealing with the unthinkable, to whom it may concern.

So we started planning.

Come together

We first thought of the place. We didn’t want to play at the school memorial, in front of the building where these 19 children and 2 teachers were stripped of their lives. It was about helping the community rebuild itself. The memorial in the main square of Uvalde – a gathering place – seemed more appropriate.

Then we had to decide who would go and how would we get there. I called all the local mariachis I knew and put out an open invitation on Facebook. I thought we might be 10 or 15 strong people. A few hours later, the handful of mariachis who had eagerly agreed to take part grew into a group of at least 60 musicians. With the generous help of Javier Espinoza, a lawyer friend, we chartered a bus to take them all from San Antonio to Uvalde.

As an artist, Ortiz also felt the need to create – to help himself, to help the community. So he wrote a bullfight, a Mexican writing style that reads a bit like a news report. Unlike ranchera music that originated in the Mexican Revolution and traditionally emphasized the romanticism of rural life, corridos are ballads that relate the facts of a tragic, often heroic tale.

Ortiz screen-printed 600 copies of his song “El Corrido de Los Angeles de Uvalde”:

Una oscuridad nunca

Ha cubierto los calurosos cielos de Uvalde

Mientras se escuchaban los disparos

A lo largo del pequeño y tranquilo vecindario

Never such darkness

Covered the warm skies of Uvalde

As the shots could be heard

Throughout the quiet little neighborhood.

Play for Uvalde

We arrived in Uvalde on Wednesday late afternoon. The town square was packed with media, onlookers paying their respects and family members of the victims. After Ortiz distributed copies of his corrido, our army of fiddlers, guitarists and vihuelas, trumpeters and singers – including 7-year-old Mateo Lopez, known as the world’s youngest mariachi – took up positions around the cross ring. I made a few remarks and then, under the cool shade of the oaks, we began to play. No rehearsal had been necessary. It’s the magic of the mariachi tradition – all we needed was eye contact and a nod to communicate with each other.

Some people sang. Others could only wipe away their tears.

As we played, all I could think about was how different this grief was. Like I said before, playing funerals is part of our calling, but we usually play for one person at a time. You see, that’s how people usually die: one at a time. But in Uvalde, it was 21 years old. And they didn’t just die. They were murdered. Shot down and killed with a high powered rifle.

After finishing, each of us had the chance to visit the memorial and pay our respects. Now, I’ve seen mass shooting memorials on TV and said my prayers for those victims and been that stranger sending condolences, but this memorial was also different. The brown faces on those crosses were children with faces I knew. They were the same faces as the children in my family. They were the same faces as the students we teach. They were my childlike face.

Next to each cross were layers of flowers – fresh on dead in addition to rotting. Layers of grief. Relatives of the victims were standing nearby. They seemed lost, with nowhere to go. I kissed one of them.

There were also stuffed animals placed on the memorial. Karolina’s mother, my goddaughter, had stood by me as I visited each cross. I touched one of the stuffed unicorns with a rainbow tail. Suddenly I heard him gasp. “They’re like Karo’s toys,” she said, between sobs.

Reading the names of these children, I found myself crying and saying “I’m sorry.” I’m sorry to be part of a society that didn’t protect you. Although we try to vote for the right people so that this does not happen, it is not enough.

I wasn’t the only one feeling this or saying these words. Every member of our large mariachi band had similar feelings. Each member was part sad and part angry and it is from that anger that I write this.

This is the time when we stop apologizing for our failures. We must vote for leaders who arm our country with laws, not guns. I never want to have to play those songs of grief again for children murdered by gun violence.

Anthony Medrano is a professional mariachi musician and instructor. He has performed at the White House and Kennedy Center, co-directed an annual mariachi festival, “Mariachi USA,” at the Hollywood Bowl, and has been a member of San Antonio-based Mariachi Campanas de América since 1986.

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