Our evergreens are shipped in. Our snow is fake. Chestnuts don't roast very well over a chimenea. And sleighs and reindeer don't do the desert. But there is a genuine way to celebrate the Yuletide in the Valley, courtesy of our neighbor to the south. And a truly enormous event devoted to it: the Christmas Mariachi Festival.
Because of our proximity to the Mexican border, "It's just natural to have that appreciation for the culture of Mexico," says Lorenzo Lucas, festival event coordinator. "It's part of the Southwest."
For the many Arizonans who vacation in Mexico, the mariachi sound evokes happy memories. That feeling is even stronger for Latinos. Lucas explains, "It's everything to us -- it's for celebration, it's for mourning, it's for reminiscing."
Mariachi is pure emotion. Crowds at the yearly festival sing along to their favorite songs and let out shouts of approval at the high points. It's easy to understand why -- that is, if you've ever experienced real mariachi.
"I think first-time mariachi festivalgoers are shocked," Lucas says. "People sometimes think, Mariachi? That's those three guys that come up to me in Rocky Point or Nogales.'" Such notions couldn't be further from the truth.
In fact, seeing an honest-to-goodness mariachi is awe-inspiring. It's a full orchestra of a dozen or more members, with lively violins, bright, shimmering trumpets and softly melodic guitars, backed by the strummed rhythms of the high-pitched vihuela and the deeper-toned guitarrón. Sometimes the entire group will sing in joyful harmonies, and sometimes a soloist will belt out a triumphant song in a rich tenor.
The mariachi festival itself has become a Phoenix tradition. First staged in 1992, the event has retained faithful fans while attracting interest from new visitors. This year's two special guest vocalists are superstars: Ana Gabriel, the ultra-popular (and ultra-gorgeous) singer-songwriter, and Antonio Aguilar Jr., who's following in the footsteps of his famous father.
Three topnotch mariachis will perform this year, including Mexico City's renowned Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlán, which holds the undisputed title of "World's Greatest Mariachi." Founded in 1898, the group has been essential in establishing the standards of mariachi.
Mariachi los Caporales is a youthful, high-energy ensemble based out of San Antonio, and Mariachi Estrellas de México is from Los Angeles, which Lucas calls a hotbed of U.S.-based mariachi.
Tucson's Ballet Folklórico San Juan will provide kinetic, colorful visuals with traditional dances, and they'll be joined by several other area folklórico groups and mariachis for a spectacular show opener that will have close to 450 performers on stage and in the aisles of the arena. Lucas says, "We just really put people in the mood for what's to come" -- hopefully, that means many more years of merry mariachi.