High school and junior high mariachi students gathered at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley Performing Arts Complex Saturday as part of FESTIBA, the annual celebration of the arts.

Botines, or boots, tapped down the halls as teams were ushered backstage before their contest performances.

For some groups, this was the second straight weekend at the facility. Just last week, the University Interscholastic League State Festival was held at the venue. This was the first year the UIL officially sanctioned the event.

But to many at the competition, Texas is playing catch up to an artform taken seriously in the region for decades. Mariachis have been included in FESTIBA since it began, said UTRGV Assistant Vice President of Public Arts Dahlia Guerra.

“I believe that it’s this music that represents our students and our community,” Guerra said. “It’s a wonderful opportunity for these students to learn about their heritage, their roots and to be proud and empowered by their culture.”

And while mariachi is growing across Texas, as evident by the recent inclusion of a state UIL event, the art continues to expand locally as well.

Sharyland High School mariachi director Juan Lopez stood backstage with his junior varsity group before their performance.

“About 5 years ago, we brought in about 10 to 15 kids,” he said. “This year we brought in a total of 90 students because the program has grown so fast.”

This increase of interest led to the creation of the JV group to join the recently-created outfit at feeder-school B.L. Gray Junior High. Lopez estimated that 30 percent of Valley high schools now have either JV or associated middle school programs, and that figure is growing quickly.

Lopez said that having more competitions through the year, like the one during FESTIBA, is at least partly responsible for the growth.

Edcouch-Elsa High School mariachi director Mario Ferrer said local programs are starting to resemble the structure of marching bands — where students start in sixth grade.

Mariachis are seeing “more support from the school systems …. (that are) doing it the right way,” said Ferrer of districts investing in long-term success by building programs from the bottom up.

And it’s not cheap to fund a mariachi. Ferrer estimates that a single suit costs about $1,000, not including their instruments.

“It does add up very quickly,” he said. “It’s something the district has to really support.”

Guerra said that schools are seeing the benefits of mariachi: dedication to learn an instrument, teamwork, communication skills and providing students an opportunity to travel to places they wouldn’t otherwise.

And many of the educators pioneering new mariachi programs across the Valley and the state are university alumni. Both Ferrer and Lopez are products of the University of Texas-Pan American mariachi program.

“We’re on our third or fourth generation of teachers that has graduated and now their students are teaching,” Guerra said. “It’s something the Valley should be very proud of.”

Organizers, advisors and participants all noted the competitive level of local talent, but that doesn’t necessarily translate to a cutthroat environment.

“The vibes here are really friendly… (and) … everyone knows each other,” said Rio Grande City High School junior Abel Juarez, who helped guide groups to their practice rooms before performances.

He said it meant a lot to have the chance to perform, and appreciated the numerous categories of competition offer by the FESTIBA event.

“The entire Valley has amazing mariachis,” he said. “It’s nice, coming from where we’re from, to see that we stand out around the world.”