EDINBURG - At the early age of six, Julie Ann Zamora of McAllen, got her first taste of mariachi music.
Spending countless hours listening to her parent's old mariachi records, she developed a taste for the strong Mexican rhythm combination of violins, guitars, basses, and trumpets.
Fourteen years later, Zamora can often be found fitted into an olive green charro suit, with a wide brimmed hat and a violin in hand, performing with The University of Texas-Pan American Mariachi.
"It's so addictive," Zamora said. "Once you start, it feels like you can never let go. I just can't get enough of the mariachi music. It's something cultural and spiritual, filled with Mexican tradition," she noted. "It's who I am and where I come from, and it's the best way I know how to show my pride in my culture."
Zamora is a sophomore at UTPA and has been performing for three years with the university mariachi, which she says has become like a second family to her.
"We spend so much time together traveling, practicing and just enjoying the music," she said. "We've developed a kind of special bond between us all, we are just like a giant family."
Gabriela Sandoval of San Antonio, a freshman member of the University Mariachi, said the program at UTPA was so good that it was a strong influence on her when choosing a college.
"I was going to attend a college in San Antonio, but when I heard the UTPA band performing in San Antonio, I new I had to be part of that team," Sandoval said. "People in San Antonio were always talking about how good the group was, and I didn't really believe them until I heard them play in person. Boy, was I wrong, I knew were I wanted to be."
Sandoval said joining the group has also created a special bond between her and her parents.
"My parents are from Mexico and speak mainly Spanish," Sandoval said. "I was brought up in the schools to speak English, which really caused a big gap between my parents and myself. I felt like we couldn't really communicate."
According to Sandoval, since she joined the mariachi group, she has learned to speak more Spanish and develop a better understanding of her parents.
"I understand my parents so much better now," she said. "I get a better feel of what my parents are all about and what it really means to come from Mexico."
The songs performed by the mariachi speak about machismo, love, death, betrayal, revolutionary heroes and politics, and according to Dr. Dahlia Guerra, associate professor of music at UTPA, mariachi music has quickly been growing in popularity worldwide.
"There has been a growing cultural awareness especially here in the Rio Grande Valley in the last 13 years," Guerra said. "The Hispanic people are becoming aware of their roots through this music. The music is used as a voice in which Hispanics can be herd."
Mariachi groups have always been predominately male, but women in the last decade have slowly been making their presence known especially in the Rio Grande Valley, said Guerra, who founded the UTPA mariachi in 1989.
"There are almost no female mariachi musicians in Mexico," she noted, "but in time I think it will become more and more accepted. The number of female mariachi players in the Valley has already been increasing at a tremendous pace."
According to Guerra, currently about half of the UTPA Mariachi musicians are female.
"It isn't easy for women to be in mariachi groups," Zamora said. "Women have to prove to themselves as well as everyone else that they can be just as good as men are."
And according to the UTPA sophomore, joining the group has helped her to become a strong more independent person.
"I used to be shy and afraid to let other people hear me play my music, but when you are in a Mariachi group there is no room to be shy," she said.
Zamora said she now takes a more aggressive stance with her music.
"You have to be strong when playing mariachi music," she said. "It's the style, it's the form the music takes."
Ismael Alatorre, a UTPA freshman from San Antonio and member of the group, agreed with Zamora and said being in a mariachi group takes a lot of discipline and talent.
"My cousins are all in mariachi groups back in San Antonio," Alatorre said. "I know what it means to be in a mariachi group. Its like a tradition in my family, and I plan on carrying on the tradition."
Alatorre said he chose to attend UTPA because of the music program offered.
"That's all they talk about back in San Antonio. The UT Pan American Mariachi band is rated as a number one mariachi band, and its just a real honor to be part of such a group."
In August, the UTPA Mariachi was invitied to march with professional mariachi groups from all over the world in the City of Festivals parade in Guadalajara, Jalisco, Mexico.
"It was amazing," Zamora said. "Mariachi bands from all over the world got together to show their stuff. It was so impressive."
Groups from as far away as Japan, France, and Argentina joined in the festival.
"I had no idea mariachi music had become so popular," Zamora said. "I had never been in a parade so large before. When we marched down the street, I felt like the entire city was watching us. Thousands and thousands of people attended the parade. It was really a thrill of a lifetime. I know once you have tasted the mariachi music, it will always be a part of your life one way or the other."