Gael Fernandez, violin player and Uvalde High School senior

E very weekday at 5:30 a.m., while most of his San Antonio, Texas, neighborhood is still asleep, Albert Martinez gets into his silver Nissan Sentra and starts the drive to Uvalde, 70 miles to the west. That early, U.S. 90, which starts near the Mexican border and ends in Florida, is infinitely dark and leaden, the tiny farms along the way covered in shadows.

Martinez is a 50-year-old music teacher in Uvalde. Usually, he drives in silence. The radio would be a distraction — it’s almost impossible for him to listen to anything without counting in time or wondering why an instrument wasn’t tuned more tightly. Instead, he makes plans, deciding which song his kids might learn next or thinking through upcoming performances. By the time he arrives in Uvalde, the sun has come up.

The rest of the city is starting the day, too: Cars move up and down Main Street, a short strip dotted with a leafy park, an H-E-B grocery store, and an old-school soda fountain with a mural on the side of it, proudly honoring Uvaldeans like Oscar regular Matthew McConaughey and the Grammy-winning Tejano band Los Palominos. There’s an immigration checkpoint in town, but Uvalde isn’t a border town, as it’s often painted — it’s more than 60 miles from Piedras Negras, Mexico. Still, many families, even those here for decades, have held on to their roots, contributing to a culture that’s distinctly Mexican American. Uvalde’s identity is best understood by longtime residents, who agree that this is a small, quiet community — 15,000 people in all — bonded by time, proximity, and routine. “Everybody knows a relative of everyone,” one local tells me. “It’s like we’re all connected somehow.”

Martinez soon reaches Uvalde High School, parks in a back lot, and makes his way inside before the first bell rings at 7:50 a.m. But a few blocks away, if you continue on Main Street, you reach the town square. Here, you’re reminded of how the city’s story shattered not long ago. A crystalline blue fountain sits at the center, surrounded by 21 white crosses. They’re a symbol of infinite love and impossible agony — a sign of collective pain and the refusal to forget the lives lost on May 24, 2022, when a gunman opened fire at Robb Elementary School, killing 19 fourth-grade children and two teachers in one of the deadliest mass shootings in American history.

Families, friends, and strangers replenish each cross with an endless supply of handwritten cards, bouquets, and stuffed animals. Just before Easter, colorful plastic eggs and toy rabbits cover the site, a paschal season spent in sorrow. A troupe of artists flooded into town last summer and painted murals honoring each victim; today, an older woman stands in front of one of them and wipes away tears.

There are other tributes to the victims in town, but every loved one mourns individually, carrying their own trove of memories. “It’s like we’re just stuck on May 24th. It just does not change,” says Berlinda Irene Arreola, the step-grandmother of Amerie Jo Garza, a 10-year-old girl who loved art and had a knack for sculpting tiny objects out of clay. In a place as small as Uvalde, the pain reverberates, sending aftershocks of trauma and sadness. “Nothing like this has ever happened before,” says Gloria Cazares, who lost her daughter Jackie, a cheerful nine-year-old who dreamed about going to Paris one day. “The community — you just don’t know how to deal with it.”

Clockwise from top right: Jayro Del Valle, Amberly Escobar, Patrick Mejia, Sarahy Escobar

Grief that great becomes amorphous, spreading out in unpredictable ways. In Uvalde, one outlet has been mariachi music, a sound embedded into the town’s cultural DNA. Mariachi traditions run deep in Texas, a reminder of roots that predate U.S. borders. Some of mariachi’s folk-driven rhythms date back to the 18th century, the style having bloomed across small ranches and farms along the western part of Mexico. Radio and movies popularized the look and feel of mariachi, which became known for bold trumpets, perfectly synced violins, five-string vihuelas, and bass-guitar-like guitarróns.

Over the past year, mariachi’s traditions have served a solemn purpose in Uvalde. At funerals, mariachi musicians serenaded the inconsolable. Last June, more than 50 drove into Uvalde from all over Texas, hoping to offer strength and solidarity to people they’d never met. “Part of our calling is also to be there at the end of life,” a musician named Anthony Medrano told Rolling Stone at the time. “We are called on to console, to grieve, to send off the ones who have passed away.” Mariachi can be the soundtrack to better times, too, more jubilant mariachi songs offering moments of joy at family gatherings and quinceañeras.

This is the music that tumbles out of Martinez’s classroom. Since September 2021, he’s been the mariachi director in Uvalde, working with JV and varsity classes — plus kids at Morales Junior High School — as they learn the art form. On the April afternoon I visit, his energy is on full display as he crisscrosses the band room, demonstrating parts on guitar, trumpet, and guitarrón. He modulates his gravelly voice like a musician, toggling from playful to stern. Usually it stays affectionate, especially when he refers to each kid as “mijo” or “mija.”

When Martinez started at Uvalde High, a lot of his students didn’t take the music seriously. Within two years, they’d become the pride of Uvalde, during a wrenching time.

Right now, though, they’re a bunch of distracted teenagers late for sixth period.

“All right,” Martinez says, snapping them to attention. “What do you guys wanna practice?”

MARTINEZ NEVER PLANNED to teach mariachi. He was born in Toa Baja, in Puerto Rico, and moved to El Paso, Texas, at age five. He comes from a musical family, and around age 10, Martinez picked up the trumpet. Though he played in jazz and marching bands growing up, his dream was to share stages with salsa and merengue stars from his home island. “I’m Puerto Rican, so I thought to myself, ‘I’m going to play [with] Bonny Cepeda and Elvis Crespo,’ ” he says. “I couldn’t wait.”

Until he took a mariachi class his senior year of high school, his view of the music reflected the stereotypes held by many Americans unfamiliar with the tradition: costumed groups who play at kitschy Mexican restaurants. He realized just how talented these musicians were when his teacher took the class to a mariachi festival in Arizona, where he saw bands like Mariachi los Camperos de Nati Cano, the first mariachi group to play at Carnegie Hall, and Mariachi Cobre (Martinez would later play several shows with them alongside Linda Ronstadt). He was struck by the power of their harmonies, their almost telepathic connection as they played as one.

Martinez got a degree in music education, then spent 19 years as a band director in El Paso. In 2021, when his wife, Ivonne, found a new teaching job in San Antonio that paid $10,000 more than the one she had, the couple decided to try a new city. Martinez began job hunting, too, but with the school year having already begun, openings were scarce.

Sophomore Arianna Ovalle joined the group last year.

A friend tipped him off that Uvalde was looking for a new mariachi director. Martinez didn’t know anything about that part of Texas; all he could think about was that the job matched his skill set, and he felt like he could endure that daily drive. He didn’t plan on being one of those teachers who only sticks around for a year, either. “I think every kid deserves a good teacher,” he remembers telling the principal. He could do it.

Or so he thought. When he started in September 2021, it was already a month into the school year. The first day he walked into his varsity class at Uvalde High, he found a group of irritated, bored-looking teenagers barely looking up from their phones. None of them were holding instruments; some were sprawled on the ground, laughing over him. When he tried to start a lesson, the energy went from apathetic to hostile. “They’d be like, ‘Screw you, we don’t have to listen to you.’ ” Martinez says. “They hated me. I’m talking months of kids telling me, ‘We’re not doing it. You’re not going to make us.’ ”

One of the most brazen agitators was Gael Fernandez, a violin player with shoulder-length black hair. He’s funny and gregarious, qualities that got him in trouble when he’d distract and derail the class. Before he met “Mr. Martinez,” he didn’t take mariachi all that seriously, even though, like most students in the class, he’d been playing it since junior high. The program has been at the high school for almost 25 years, but Fernandez says mariachi class had always been laid-back. On an average day, students might learn some fundamentals and play a song or two, but then the rest of the class functioned like a free period.

The semester had started without a regular mariachi teacher — just a string of substitutes cycling in and out until Martinez arrived. “I don’t even remember if they let us get our instruments,” Fernandez says of the subs. “I think that’s why it took a while to get adjusted to Martinez, because we were like, ‘Now we have to actually do work.’ ”

Martinez wanted the kids to actually try, to see what they could do if they put their minds to it, to see if maybe, just maybe, they could fall in love with mariachi the way he had. Also, he was stubborn. So rather than quit or punish his class, he did something either bold or foolish, depending on your viewpoint: He registered Uvalde High School in Texas’ biggest mariachi competition.

It took a while [for the students] to get adjusted to Martinez,” senior violin player Gael Fernandez remembers, “because we were like, ‘Now we actually have to do work.’

In the early 2000s, schools began asking the University Interscholastic League (UIL) to add mariachi to its roster of academic, athletic, and music contests, putting the activity on the same level as sanctioned sports like swimming and football. It made sense: Mariachi combines elements of band, choir, and orchestra, and the art form had been growing in popularity in south Texas. For many students, mariachi is a way of staying close to their heritage. UIL added it as a regional contest in 2007, and in 2019, it formally expanded into a state festival.

Slowly, Martinez made progress. The kids would rehearse slightly out-of-tune songs, grumbling on the side. But the competition gave them something to work toward. It wasn’t until they walked into a giant auditorium at Southwest High School in San Antonio in February 2022 that they fully understood what they’d gotten into. There were schools like McAllen ISD and Roma ISD, with much bigger mariachi teams in crisp, perfectly coordinated charro outfits, practicing choreographed stomps and sombrero flourishes. Some groups had harp players, others had multiple instructors dedicated to each section of the band. “And there I was, running around with my backpack,” Martinez says with a chuckle.

Although the kids aren’t competing head-to-head, they’re still subject to high standards. The schools that advance from the regional round make it to the state showcase, where they’re judged on a scale of one to five (one being the top rating) on tone, technique, and musicianship. “To get a superior rating and come home with the big trophy is extremely difficult,” says Joseph Baca, a teacher from Florida who judged this year’s festival. “It’s going to be even more difficult for the smaller schools — usually they’re missing a budget, they don’t have a big pool of students, and you have to work with who you have.”

Uvalde took its turn onstage and ended up with a middling 2-2-3 rating. “It wasn’t our best performance,” Fernandez says sheepishly. But though the experience had been intimidating, the kids came back energized, eager to see what they could push themselves to do.

Martinez used the momentum to keep building out the team. Earlier in the year, some students had told him about David Hernandez, a charismatic kid who played trumpet in the jazz and marching bands and ran his family’s fireworks stand every summer. He towers over most kids — everyone calls him Tree because, as one of his classmates put it, “he’s been, like, six foot since fifth grade.” Martinez persuaded him to help out the team before the regional competition — and, eventually, to join the class.

That spring, Martinez announced he’d be initiating an audition process, allowing more freshmen and sophomores to try out for varsity. He recruited a couple of younger students, like a soft-spoken violin player named Arianna Ovalle. She was a little less experienced but determined and intensely focused; in fact, she wasn’t sure about doing varsity mariachi because she didn’t want it to affect her volleyball commitments.

Martinez also got tough when he had to: “Do me a favor,” he told Fernandez. “Don’t sign up if you’re not going to take this seriously.” The warning rattled Fernandez, who vowed to work harder and prioritize practice.

As the term ground to a close in May 2022, the next school year looked promising for Uvalde’s varsity mariachi students. Martinez even offered private lessons to students who wanted to get a head start.

Then, on May 24, two days before the end of the school year, sirens filled Main Street, audible from nearly every corner in town. From that point on, nothing in Uvalde would be the same.

IN THE DAYS following the shooting, Gloria Cazares was struck by the support she felt in Uvalde. “It was heartwarming,” she says. “We had food trains, leaving their cards, leaving baskets, food. It was overwhelming.”

Albert Martinez played in major mariachi bands before coming to work at Uvalde

But as time passed, the sense of unity and support frayed. Grief-stricken parents fought for answers and expressed outrage over law enforcement’s response, particularly after investigations revealed that nearly 400 officers waited 77 minutes to confront the gunman, who’d barricaded himself in two adjoining classrooms. Parents demanded accountability and called for gun reforms, topics that divided Uvalde. Cazares and other moms banded together, forming an organization called Lives Robbed to fight for gun-control legislation alongside other families. The work they did was grueling, but Cazares found strength in the other moms, leaning on them to get through each day. (In May of this year, they had a win when House Bill 2744, which would raise the age to buy assault-rifle-style weapons from 18 to 21, passed a Texas House committee during an unexpected vote.)

With the weight of the tragedy and constant media attention hovering over everyone, the new school year began in September, three weeks late. Reporters chased down Uvalde High students, curious to know if they had connections to the tragedy. The question seemed futile in a place as small as Uvalde. Though no one understood the pain like the parents of the children who were lost, you could find cousins, neighbors, and extended relatives of the victims at any turn. Much of the community had attended Robb Elementary. It’s like we’re all connected somehow.

Meanwhile, in Martinez’s classroom, the students grew closer. In previous years, all the mariachi classes were mixed together, depending on what openings kids had in their schedules. But now, after Martinez had worked with school counselors to make sure all the varsity mariachi musicians were in the same class period, they met and rehearsed at 1:50 p.m. each day. Some had been in the same classes since kindergarten, but they hadn’t really been friends. Now, they saw one another all the time. “We all got to know each other. We felt more comfortable to help each other out,” says Sarahy Escobar, a shy senior who plays violin. “It felt like we were all on the same page,” adds Ovalle.

Martinez likes to let the kids guide one another. Tree emerged as the leader of the trumpets, a section that also included Escobar’s younger sister, Amberly, and Mayumi and Nicte Montiel Roman, chatty twins born in Aguascalientes, Mexico. Patrick Mejia, a quiet senior with perpetually ruffled curls, had switched from guitar to vihuela, a lute-like instrument that gives mariachi music its distinctive pitch, and juggled track and football practice while never missing a rehearsal.

In the string section, Fernandez would help younger players like Ovalle figure out complex arrangements in his affable way, though Martinez sometimes had to make sure Fernandez stayed on task. Some of the kids joked about Escobar being like the mom of the group: On performance days, she would flutter from kid to kid, fixing their maroon mariachi trajes, straightening their wide-brimmed white hats and adjusting hair ribbons.

Meanwhile, Martinez worked with two mariachi friends to find the right competition music. There’s an art to this. Every school that competes at UIL has to play a son jalisciense, a traditional style that reflects the roots of mariachi, and a contrasting song or medley. Martinez decided to try “El Son de Irapuato,” a cheerful but lesser-known son from central Mexico, and “Quien Sera,” a popular mariachi cover of “Sway,” best known from Michael Bublé’s rendition. He felt confident that the rhythm section could handle each one, that the violins and the trumpets were strong enough to hold everything together.

Their weakness, he knew, was singing, a result of working with kids who were still a little reluctant to be onstage. But Escobar had a pretty voice, honed by singing at family parties, so he had her lead “Quien Sera” alongside her sister and another sophomore, named Kamila Martinez.

These kids are super talented, and they love mariachi — they do it with their heart,” says Cinthia Besares, a manager of a local flower shop called The Petal Florist. “Everyone is happy for them, and everyone encourages them.

The team perfected their competition songs, learning them inside and out, and came into regionals in February much more confident than they’d been the year before. Still, the students were shocked when they learned they’d tallied enough points to move on to the state festival. “It didn’t really settle in that we were actually going,” says Lizett Vasquez, a junior who plays the guitarrón and tends to get a little nervous before big events.

On a Friday morning at the end of February, the team piled onto a bus to make the two-hour ride to Seguin, Texas, for the state competition. Uvalde was one of the first schools to perform that afternoon. Almost all the kids’ parents sat in the audience. Back at school, some teachers put the UIL livestream on in their classes so the rest of the school could watch.

Before playing for the judges, every school warms up in a small side room. The nerves started building up there. “Before then, it was like, ‘Oh, yeah, we’re going to state,’ ” says Vasquez. “Now it’s like, ‘Wow, we’re really here.’ It doesn’t feel real.”

Lined up in the hallway before going onstage, they were ready — their hats at the same level, following each other in a straight, trusting line. “I was just standing there and thinking, ‘The months of preparation we put in, everything we’ve done, is going to get judged in a less-than-10-minute segment,’ ” Fernandez says. Martinez barely remembers this part; he was running around, adjusting mics and pulling up music stands. But the kids smiled like they’d practiced and Vasquez let out an elated grito, the triumphant yelp common in mariachi music, kicking off “El Son de Irapuato.”

Everything was going well until “Quien Sera.” The three girls walked to the front of the stage — they seemed a little shaky — and began to sing. Right when the first chorus hit, something slipped: They stumbled ever so slightly, falling out of time with the rhythm section. Standing in front of them, Martinez fought off a twinge of panic and started mouthing the words along with them. The girls recovered just in time for the next chorus. “The second time, they nailed it,” Martinez says. “They sounded really, really good.” By the end of the song, their voices rang out through the auditorium, confident and powerful.

All of it — the courage it took to get there, the uncertainty, the applause afterward — seemed to briefly overwhelm the kids. Many of them were crying before they stepped offstage, unsure of their performance. But in the audience, people began welling up, too, for a different reason: They were touched by what they’d witnessed.

To Baca, one of the festival judges, Uvalde’s performance wasn’t technically perfect — few things by teenagers are — but what moved him was how well Uvalde played as a group. “They were communicating how they needed to communicate. That’s the most difficult [thing],” he says. “A mariachi ensemble can fall apart quite easily, given the complex rhythms and how things kind of float over each other.” But he could tell the Uvalde kids were connected.

The Varsity [ from left ] Albert Martinez, Sofia Schaffino, Nicte Roman, David Hernandez, Victoria Reyes, Sarahy Escobar, Kamila Martinez, Amberly Escobar, Lizett Vasquez, Patrick Mejia, Gracie Flores, Sophia Rodriguez, Gael Fernandez, Tommie Guerrero, Arianna Ovalle, Nicolas Avila, Miranda Carreon, Mayumi Roman, Jayro Del Valle, Joaquin Hernandez

Bradley Kent, the music director of UIL, saw many performances that day, but says Uvalde stood out. “I got to tell you, it was emotional for all of us. There were a few tears shed among our staff as well,” he says. “When we hear special performances like theirs, it just speaks to your heart.”

The UIL awards ceremony would be held late that evening, but the kids had to head back to Uvalde. Before they could go, the festival staff stopped them. They pulled them into a hallway and, before some of them could even process what was happening, brought out a giant state trophy. The team had earned a “1” rating overall, the highest distinction possible. Someone got a picture just as the trophy came out; you can see several kids covering their mouths in pure shock. A few burst into tears.

Martinez had his own moment right then, his year and a half at the school flashing in front of his eyes. He thought about all the time they’d spent in the classroom, all the practice it took. “I was proud,” he says, “to see that full circle, from them not being successful to the moment they were finally able to grasp what I knew they could achieve.”

They got on the bus and made the two-hour trek back to Uvalde. Fernandez fell asleep on the way, clutching the trophy in his arms.

AFTER THEIR WIN at state, the kids were welcomed back to Uvalde like heroes. The community is still reeling from the tragedy — and nothing will bring back such deep losses. But many in town have embraced the team. Hernandez was grabbing a bite with a few friends when someone stopped him, asking, “Aren’t you part of the mariachi team that won?”

“These kids are super talented, and they love mariachi — they do it with their heart,” says Cinthia Besares, a manager of a local flower shop called The Petal Florist. “Everyone Is happy for them, and everyone encourages them to keep it up.” Veronica Mata, who lost her daughter Tess on May 24, smiles when I ask her about the team; she saw the news on a friend’s post recently while scrolling through Facebook.

Members of the community went up to Fernandez while he was waiting tables at El Herradero de Jalisco, a Mexican restaurant on Main Street, and congratulated him. When the students wore their maroon mariachi T-shirts outside of school, Uvalde cheered them on. Ovalle is careful about boasting, but knows the win meant something to the community. “I don’t know how to say it,” she says. “We made them proud, I guess.”

The seniors have begun to make plans: In the fall, Hernandez will head to Texas A&M University, Kingsville, where he wants to keep studying music and get a teaching degree. Mejia hopes to open a detailing workshop in Uvalde with his little brother, while Escobar is thinking about studying business at Southwest Texas Junior College in town. Fernandez will join her there while he wraps up his associate’s degree, and then he dreams of transferring to the University of Houston to become a pediatric therapist.

All of them are trying to imagine life outside of Martinez’s class. “This has been the most consistent thing I’ve been in,” Fernandez admits. He’s already started saving money to buy his own violin. Ovalle is thinking about lessons they picked up from Martinez, how he instilled a work ethic in them. “Our seniors are graduating, and they’ll take that with them in the future,” she says. “And me, I’m still staying here. I’ll teach it to the younger kids that are coming in.”

Before running off in different directions, there’s one last thing they all have to do. Uvalde’s school district hosts a giant concert for the community at the end of every school year, and each grade level — from middle school up — showcases its skills. In the days leading up to the big event in April, Martinez designed glossy programs with photos of the mariachi kids’ journey to state. The concert title was printed on each one: Serenata a Mi Querido Uvalde. A Serenade to My Beloved Uvalde.

The concert takes place on a sunlit Thursday. The younger kids perform first, and even the occasional rogue violin squeak seems to charm the crowd. Their cheers become even louder once the varsity team lines up in their trajes, holding their instruments.

Before the varsity team’s last song, an ecstatic burst of brass and energy called “El Mariachi Loco,” Martinez takes the mic. “We have five graduating seniors this year,” he says, then asks each to step onstage with their parents. During all the concert planning, he found time to make little mementos, framing photos of every senior in their mariachi uniforms.

“This is just a token from me and my wife,” Martinez says, and suddenly, his voice catches. A few of the kids cock their heads, eyeing him a little closer because maybe they heard wrong, but no, it’s true — Mr. Martinez is crying. The parents take photos and step offstage, leaving the seniors in the center with their arms around one another.

“All right,” Martinez says, regaining his composure. “This is it, guys. This is their last song.” A shudder seems to run through Fernandez. He exchanges a look with Escobar and Mejia, before turning their attention back to their music stands. A swell of violins and guitars kicks them off, and they play for Uvalde one last time.