Festival performances open with Thursday's Participant Showcase, which features students enthusiastically demonstrating their budding skills under the approving gaze of their professional mentors. It's the grand finale to the workshops, and the lineup includes as many as 14 student bands.
Friday night's Espectacular Concert is the most formal event of the series, showcasing big-name bands including California's all-female Mariachi Divas, and Mariachi los Camperos di Nati Cano, a Los Angeles group that has performed at Lincoln Center in New York City and Guadalajara's legendary Teatro de Degollado.
Finally comes Saturday's outdoor Fiesta de Garibaldi at Reid Park's DeMeester Outdoor Performance Center. Named for Mexico City's famous mariachi plaza, the Plaza Garibaldi, it's an informal gathering where neighbors chat, carne asada sizzles at food booths, and families spread folding chairs across the lawn. This event's special charm also comes from young performers such as Mariachi Aztlán, taught by John Contreras at Tucson's Pueblo Magnet High School.
On sunny days, it's easy to become absorbed in the festive atmosphere sparked by this rollicking, boisterous music. And for that, we have to thank musicians such as Contreras, who attended his first mariachi workshop as a child. "I was part of the mariachi conference since the beginning," he says. "Now it's an ongoing tradition that fills me with pride."
These days, it's also part of Tucson's rich weave. "I think much of it is just being in touch with your culture," Contreras says as a new group begins playing the haunting melody of "Volver, Volver" ("Return, Return"). "It's something I remember from growing up, hearing my parents and grandparents listen to the music."
Music on the menu
The Tucson International Mariachi Conference ( www.tucsonmariachi.org or 520/838-3913) features two indoor concerts: the students' Participant Showcase (7 p.m. Apr 21; $10) and the professional Espectacular Concert (7:30 p.m. Apr 22; from $26), featuring the world's best mariachi players and folklórico dancers. Both are at the Tucson Convention Center (260 S. Church Ave.; 520/791-4266). The Fiesta de Garibaldi is in Reid Park at the DeMeester Outdoor Performance Center (10-10 Apr 23; $5, ages 17 and under free; on Country Club Rd. between Broadway Blvd. and 22nd St.).
Several Mexican eateries in Tucson offer live mariachi music; call for schedule.
El Mezón del Cobre. Specializes in Mexican-style seafood. $$. 2960 N. First Ave.; 520/791-0977.
La Fuente. A longtime tourist favorite; try the carne seca chimichanga. $$. 1749 N. Oracle Rd.; 520/623-8659.
La Parilla Suiza. Go for grilled dishes like boneless pork steak with charro beans from Mexico City. $. 4250 W. Ina Rd.; 520/572-7200.
Las Cazuelitas de Tucson. The bustling south-side eatery offers spicy, standard Mexican fare. $. 2615 S. Sixth Ave.; 520/792-0405.
Rigo's Mexican Restaurant. Delicious carne asada in a casual, festive setting. $. 2527 S. Fourth Ave.; 520/882-9323.