Mariachi California de Javier Vargas; Vargas at far right
By Scott MacClelland
JAVIER VARGAS came to Watsonville in 1962 at the invitation of Fr. José María Rojas, a priest from Costa Rica. A member of the Salesian order, Rojas’ mission was to provide for the welfare of children from low-income families. In the Pajaro Valley, that meant primarily children of farm workers. Fr. Rojas established the Penny Club, which any child could join for just a penny. The club very successfully provided the youngsters with art, music and sports.
Vargas, a native of Tuxpan, Jalisco, grew up with the sound of mariachi, or Son Jaliscience. After all, Tuxpan, close to Tecalitlán and not far from Cocula and Ocotlán is situated where mariachi was born. (The latter three towns still argue over which gets bragging rights to the style’s origins.)
“When I finished grammar school I studied in seminary to become a priest,” says Vargas. He was 15. He later obtained a student visa that allowed him to continue at a seminary in Montezuma, New Mexico, a small town on the east side of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains near that state’s Las Vegas. “I studied there for the last three years before the seminary was converted into a university.” He added some historic background. “In Mexico, the government started persecuting priests in the 1920s.” This was because the church had too much power, he told me, and priests were the most vulnerable. “The seminary in New Mexico was founded at the time so that bishops in America could train priests for service in Mexico.”
When Fr. Rojas recruited Vargas he was already a performer of mariachi music, first as a singer then a guitarist. In Watsonville, he began his teaching career. His activities included driving school buses and, after school, training the young students in mariachi. It was in Watsonville that he met Diana who would become his wife 39 years ago. Their marriage made it easy for Javier to become a US citizen. Of their two children, son Andy hooked up with record producer Terry Melcher and Bruce Johnston of The Beach Boys. As a result of those contacts, Andy Vargas now sings with the world-touring Carlos Santana band. “He’s living my dream,” says Javier cheerily. While Mariachi California de Javier Vargas was formed 19 years ago, Javier had already played mariachi music all over the Monterey Bay area for weddings, religious events, quinceañeras, restaurant entertainment and other social events.
Vargas says he is descended from Gaspar Vargas who, in 1897, founded the Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlán setting the early professional standards for playing and singing of what had started as one type of Mexican folk music. The music gained attention in Mexico City when a wealthy hacienda family brought an early Mariachi from Cocula to play for President Porfirio Díaz in 1905. In 1933 Lázaro Cárdenas insisted on using mariachi bands during his presidential election campaign, securing national prominence for the art. Mariachi inspired Aaron Copland’s famous El Salón México, begun in 1932 and completed four years later.
“Around 1967 a [UC Santa Cruz] university professor, David Kilpatrick, decided to do a class in mariachi,” Vargas told me. He became a regular in the class and occasionally substituted when Kilpatrick was away. “William Faulkner played solos on his Jalisco harp when we did a concert at Hartnell College. At the university I also helped because David didn’t have anybody else to sing.” Keeping standards high has always been a priority with Vargas, in performance as well as teaching. He is proud of Watsonville students who have gone on to big careers in mariachi, like the late superstar Laura Sobrino, and Chandra Allen who is a regular in his band. The famous all-female Mariachi Reyna de Los Angeles has included musicians who grew up in Watsonville.
The Vargas band reflects the component instruments that evolved 60 to 70 years ago into the standard of today, ideally two trumpets, three violins, guitar, the smaller vihuela and the big guitarrón bass. The town of Paracho in Michoacán State has been producing wooden instruments since the mid-16th century and today is world-famous for its plucked string instruments. (The Jalisco harp used to be a regular mariachi instrument but has become rare as an ensemble instrument in recent decades.)
“Today I’m teaching groups of students who have talent but don’t have resources,” Vargas says. “This is the moment for musicians who want to help these students with something positive, something to keep them away from gangs and drugs.” It’s the same concept that saw the rise of El Sistema in Venezuela. But Vargas didn’t have to go there to understand the need and follow a similar path.