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Mexican Song girl with violin
Why did my school have a mariachi?

Natalie Dean grabbed her violin’s bow and began rosining it feverishly. The International Mariachi Conference was tomorrow. It was the biggest performance of the whole year. And she had to solo, on a microphone in front of thousands of people. You can do this, she thought. Her song, “Sabor a Mi” (Savor me), ran through her head like a CD that played one song a million times, over and over…

Tanto tiempo disfrutamos
De este amor,
Nuestras almas se acercaron
Tanto así, que yo guardo en tu sabor,
Pero tú llevas también,
Sabor a mí…

Miserable questions chased after the lyrics. Why did my school have a mariachi? Not—I don’t know—orchestra, or band or something? Like a normal school? And why on earth did my innocent five-year-old self join? Why didn’t I see this coming? And so on and so on. Of course, she knew the answers. Davis Bilingual Elementary School was in Tucson, Arizona, which is near the Mexican border, so they had a Mexican music program. Best K–5 mariachi in town. She had joined for the same two reasons everyone else her age had joined—because everyone else did, and/or being able to play an instrument sounded fun. And you expect a kindergartner to worry about a performance four-and-a-half years hence?

“Bedtime!” called Natalie’s mother, Elena.

“Right… coming!” Natalie yelled back.

Once she was in bed, her mother kissed her and murmured, “Sweet dreams,” before closing the door. Natalie curled up under her sheet and shut her eyes. You think she slept?

The next day, Saturday, Natalie and her mother walked up to the Tucson Community Center’s intimidating double doors. Natalie was dressed in a long, black, cylindrical, double-layered polyester skirt with jingling metal bangles down each side, a matching jacket (with bangles!), a pair of faux-leather high-heeled boots, a humungous red bow tie, a red moño (a bow, for her hair in this case), and a ridiculously wide black sombrero. In other words, Natalie was very, very hot. The southern Arizonan sun has no mercy for ten-year-old girls with impractically thick black polyester mariachi costumes.

The backstage area was so large, a herd of the world’s tallest giraffes and fifteen large elephants could’ve lived in there, no problem. Currently, the enormous space was filled with the oiled screeching of violins, the melodious (but loud) honking and hooting of trumpets, and the lighthearted plucking of the rhythm (the guitars, vihuelas, guitarrons, and harps). No sheet music in sight. Natalie felt faint pride—mariachi always memorized their music. Sadly, the happy feeling quickly dissipated and Natalie went back to feeling queasy with anxiety. Her mother pulled her towards her group, Las Aguilitas. The Little Eagles. Juan Hernandez came running up to her.

Ay! Natalie, where have you been?” Juan was a nice guy, but running the Aguilitas was a stressful job.

“What’s up?” asked Natalie weakly.

“Um… could you help Joyce with “Guadalajara”? She keeps missing the runs,” he said, scanning his list of songs. “Hey, could you sing…” he began, but Natalie was already gone.

Actually, Joyce needed little help. She was a tiny little Sonoran eight-year-old, and it turned out that she hadn’t realized that the runs went so quickly. “I mean, Juan and Ada go so fast on it, it’s hard to keep up!” Ada, a five-foot-tall fifth-grader, was a guitarist. She was usually the one to play a song with a violin and/or trumpet who wanted to practice and could be seen strumming in exact unison with Juan. No one else needed help, so Natalie hurried back to her case and began tuning her violin by ear. Juan could’ve done it much more quickly with his tuner, but he was very busy, and Natalie felt sorry for the poor guy.

As the Showcase began, the wait only became more strenuous. In a desperate attempt to calm her nerves, Natalie concentrated on the strains of music that came from the stage next door.

Ayyy, sin amor
Yo tenia mi negra

At the sound of a different version of “Sabor a Mi,” Natalie’s stomach twisted into painful knots. If that was how it was supposed to sound, she would sound awful. So much for the distraction. Beads of sweat began forming on her forehead, created by a combination of crowds, black polyester costumes, and fraying nerves.

Mexican Song girl is singing
She felt free from all her life’s worries and completely in depth with the song

After what was, to Natalie, an eternity, Las Aguilitas were ushered through a small, claustrophobia-inducing area behind the stage. Natalie was shaking so much she almost tripped over one of the many cords that coated the floor. The group went up the steps to the stage. Instantly, they were blinded by a flood of limelights. Even if Natalie tilted her sombrero’s brim down to block them out, she could hardly see the outlines of the people in the crowd, let alone find her mother. She began taking deep breaths to calm herself. It didn’t work.

Las Aguilitas played their three most difficult songs, in this order: “Cascabel,” “Guadalajara,” and, of course, “Sabor a Mi.” Even as nervous as she was (not shy kind of nervous but oh-my-God-there’s-an-earthquake-shaking-my-body-and-my-stomach-is-a-breeding-area-for-butterflies kind of nervous), Natalie couldn’t help but love the first two songs. “Cascabel” was a quick but intense melody about rattlesnakes. “Guadalajara,” on the other hand, was an energetic song praising a place called Guadalajara in Mexico. But, alas, no matter how nice and distracting these songs were, they did have to end, and Natalie was quickly brought back to reality.

Arianna, the skinny eleven-year-old who was standing next to Natalie, gave her a kind smile and a little nudge. Natalie reluctantly shuffled to the solo microphone at the front of the stage. Her trembling hands wrenched it from its holder and brought it down to her side, next to the bangles on her skirt. Of all the waiting Natalie had to do that day, this part was by far the most terrifying. The musicians played the melody, but Natalie couldn’t hear them. She would mess up—she knew it. Maybe she would completely miss the timing, or even forget a whole verse. Mortifying!

Yet her fingers drew the heavy microphone up to her face, and she sang.

Tanto tie-e-empo disfrutamos
De este amor,
Nuestras almas se acercaron
Tanto así, que yo guardo en tu sabor,
Pero tú llevas también,
Sabor a mí…

At first Natalie had been shaking, but now she felt better. The melody was slow and sad, and the words told of a lost lover. The violins and trumpets had cooperated, creating a harmony with her voice. They played along with her for the next verse:

Si negaras mi presencia,
En tu vivir bastaría con abrazarme
Y conversar tanta vida
Yo te dí
Tantas fuerzas tienes ya
¡Sabor a mí!

As Alex, the second-grade trumpet prodigy, started his solo, Natalie realized that the inconceivable had happened. She was happy. Singing felt like flying, like all her nervous, angry, frightened feelings had seeped out into her song, which was beautiful. She felt free from all her life’s worries and completely in depth with the song. She emerged from her thoughts just in time for the next verses. The words of grief flowed to her like a stream whose dam had just been knocked down.

No pretendo… ser tu dueño,
No soy nada
Yo no tengo vanidad
De mí vida, doy lo bueno
¿Soy tan pobre, que otra cosa puedo dar?

Natalie could tell that the audience was surprised to hear her lone voice after so much of Alex’s trumpet. She smiled faintly as she sang on.

Pasarán… más de mil años,
Muchos más, yo no sé si tenga amor…
La eternidad, pero allá tal como aquí
En la boca llevarás,
Sabor a mí

The rhythm strummed tensely. The next line was the last one.

¡Sabor a mí!

The violins did a little scale and then went into a shimmering tremolo. The trumpets compensated with a broken chord. The end. Natalie was really sweating now, but it had never been more worth it. Singing was part of her, and she’d never let it go.

Mexican Song Kimberly Vance
Kimberly Vance, 10
Tucson, Arizona

Mexican Song Frances Burnett-Stuart
Frances Burnett-Stuart, 11
Los Angeles, California