When the idea of a mariachi festival was first conceived 15 years ago, neither Salud Carbajal nor I had any way of knowing if the idea could be converted into an entertainment and commercial success. In fact, several sources in the entertainment business told us that previous attempts to present mariachi programs in Santa Barbara had failed miserably and, unless we knew something that nobody else knew, we had better be prepared to face a major financial loss. The old adage that “ignorance is bliss” was a wonderful antidote to the worrisome cautionary advice that we were receiving, so plans were nevertheless launched for a mariachi festival at the Santa Barbara Bowl.
The first major positive developments were securing approval from the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce to operate under their nonprofit umbrella, and receiving a major grant from The Gas Company, which enabled the festival organizers to design and print the stationery and other material that we needed to initiate a countywide fundraising effort.
The festival, which proposed using revenues above expenses to support the educational needs of Latino students and to initiate the establishment of a youth mariachi program, met with almost instant endorsement from government officials, the private sector, and the community in general. The Santa Barbara Mariachi Festival was born a healthy, bawling, and robust baby, ready to face the world with a passion that startled professional promoters and every one of its 15 years has exceeded any expectations that the founders, even in their wildest hopes, ever imagined.
The Mariachi Festival, however, turned out to be not just a successful financial venture or a highly entertaining stage production. It quickly became an iconic cultural event for the thousands of Latinos in the greater Santa Barbara area. For many, it was a remembered yesteryear, it was the almost unbearable cascading of a lifetime of memories, it was the music of bautismos, cumpleaños, quinceañeras, of bodas, and ultimately, of entierros. It was the half-remembered time, en aquellos tiempos, when thousands of families and friends gathered in backyards across a hostile Southwest United States and played the instruments and sang the mystic songs of their forefathers.
In the darkened Santa Barbara Bowl amphitheater, the music and the lyrics brought back memories of a glorious life born of an unquestioned Mexican cultural womb—a life of love, happiness, betrayal, sorrow and death. A life that took place in an almost mythical place, mi tierra, mi México, where the immigrants in El Norte vowed to return, volver algun día, but few ever did. Instead, in their new American homes, they retained memories of those cherished places they had left behind and infused their ancient cultural traditions and customs into their new American identity. And volver we most assuredly did, in such numbers and with such a profound effect that we forever changed and enriched the political, economic, and cultural landscape of America.
Alberto Pizano is cofounder of the Santa Barbara Mariachi Festival and a former Old Spanish Days presidente.