Sundance 2023 Women Directors: Meet Alejandra Vasquez – “Going Varsity in Mariachi”

Originally published: Women and Hollywood

Alejandra Vasquez is a Mexican-American filmmaker and producer. Raised in rural Texas, she tells stories about the lives of immigrants and activists, typically from rural communities similar to her own. She’s at work on a multi-year project about her hometown with support from the International Women’s Media Foundation and Latino Public Broadcasting. Vasquez directed the short films “Folk Frontera,” winner of the SXSW Texas Shorts Jury Award, and “When It’s Good, It’s Good,” co-produced with Latino Public Broadcasting. “Going Varsity in Mariachi” is her first feature film. She’s worked on the award-winning features “Matangi/Maya/M.I.A.” (2018) and “Us Kids” (2020), along with co-producing Nanfu Wang’s upcoming feature. As a Series Producer for Topic Studios, she released the four-part series “Night Shift” and 10-part series “Eating.”

“Going Varsity in Mariachi” is screening at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival, which runs from January 19-29. Sam Osborn co-directed the film.

W&H: Describe the film for us in your own words.

AV: “Going Varsity in Mariachi” follows a year in the life of a competitive high school mariachi team in South Texas. While the film is structured like a competition film that leads up to the big state championship, the heart of the film is a coming-of-age story about growing up along the U.S.-Mexico border and using mariachi as a way to find meaning.

W&H: What drew you to this story?

AV: I grew up listening to mariachi music — it’s the music that reminds me of my family, of home — but, most people associate the music with the performers who go from table to table playing songs at Mexican restaurants. So, when my partner Sam and I were filming a different project along the U.S.-Mexico border and learned that Texas was holding its first-ever state sanctioned State Mariachi Festival, we became captivated by this world.

What excited me most was telling this kind of story from the perspective of young Mexican-Americans. I often return to the saying “ni de aqui, ni de alla” — neither from here, nor there — a phrase I think resonates with first, second, third-generation immigrants everywhere. It’s the feeling of being in between two cultures, two countries, two languages, yet not feeling quite at home in one.

Growing up, I felt there were few depictions of what it means to come of age as a daughter of immigrants, to intimately feel ni de aqui, ni de alla, so I wanted to tell a story that foregrounds that experience.

W&H: What do you want people to think about after they watch the film?

AV: My hope is that people think about the nuances and complexities of the Latino experience in the United States, and that our stories are joyous, hopeful, and exciting.

W&H: What was the biggest challenge in making the film?

AV: We filmed a 20-person music ensemble at a high school a year after the pandemic. As you can imagine, there were many bumps in the road! The most challenging part of the process was navigating such a large group of teenagers. We had to narrow down which musicians to follow and then recalibrate when certain things started happening to other members of the team. Sometimes it felt like we were constantly playing catch up or missing out.

Making this film really felt like going back to high school – with it, the everyday routine of going to class and the anxieties of trying to fit in. It forced us to rethink our approach. We realized we needed to move to the Rio Grande Valley to spend more time with the team off-camera. It was only after Sam and I relocated to the Valley and started attending rehearsal every day that we started to feel like we were also a part of the team.

My respect and admiration for educators, especially in the fine arts, has skyrocketed!

W&H: How did you get your film funded?

AV: We made a short version of this film with Pop-Up Magazine — shoutout to Haley Howle and the wonderful folks at Pop-Up — and wanted to expand the idea into a feature. We eventually partnered with Osmosis Films after applying to their new development fund for emerging filmmakers. With their support and guidance, we partnered with Luis A. Miranda, Jr., Fifth Season, and Impact Partners. We also received support from JustFilms Ford Foundation.

We feel so lucky to have worked with financiers who are kind, thoughtful, and as passionate about this story as us.

W&H: What inspired you to become a filmmaker?

AV: During my freshman year at college, I lost someone very close to me. It changed my life, my point of view, everything. I was close to dropping out or taking a leave of absence, so as a last-ditch effort to continue my education, I enrolled in a few film classes. I slowly pulled out of my grief-stricken depression. Honestly, the Film Studies program at UC Berkeley saved me and shaped me into a filmmaker that leads with curiosity and empathy. I think experiencing such profound loss at a young age has shown me the value in preserving and telling our stories.

In another life, I might’ve been an engineer. Instead, as a filmmaker, I live many lives in one – I meet people, places, and communities that become part of my own story.

W&H: What’s the best advice you’ve received?

AV: The best advice I’ve received is something I’m trying to practice now, from my dad: enjoy the moment, because when you look back, you’re going to wish you had.

W&H: What advice do you have for other women directors?

AV: Trust yourself.

W&H: Name your favorite woman-directed film and why.

AV: There are many and it’s constantly changing, so I’ll name a recent favorite: “Aftersun” by Charlotte Wells. I’ve never seen a film like it. It’s a heartbreaking, slow burn: halfway through I unexpectedly burst into tears. Wells’s ability to explore memory, family, and adolescence, through a coming-of-age lens that’s so moving yet unsentimental is a great gift and inspiration.

W&H: What, if any, responsibilities do you think storytellers have to confront the tumult in the world, from the pandemic to the loss of abortion rights and systemic violence?

AV: I believe that filmmaking is a reflection of yourself, so your politics will be reflected in your work. But I don’t think that storytellers have an inherent responsibility to confront the tumult in the world. On the contrary, I think that the more you force it, the more diluted your message can become.

W&H: The film industry has a long history of underrepresenting people of color onscreen and behind the scenes and reinforcing — and creating — negative stereotypes. What actions do you think need to be taken to make Hollywood and/or the doc world more inclusive?

AV: There’s obviously a ton of work that needs to be done on this front, especially in putting people in positions of power from marginalized backgrounds. But I’ve been encouraged by my experience making my first feature. So many of the gatekeepers and financiers we’ve met have been from diverse backgrounds and have embodied a lot of the ideals that we seem to be striving for.

This is my own experience and just one out of many, but I’m thankful that it has been a positive one and hope that it reflects where the industry is headed writ large.