San José Mariachi Mass a family affair
September 03, 2015 | posted by Today's Catholic
By Carol Baass Sowa
SAN ANTONIO • If the music and voices of Mission San José’s Mariachi Mass on Sundays are especially beautiful and uplifting, it is because of a family tradition that is still going strong. At the heart of it are siblings, children and grandchildren of founding members Jesse and Josephine Orta, who helped establish this special liturgy in San Antonio, not long after its origin in Cuernavaca, Mexico in 1966.
The Second Vatican Council had given the green light to Masses in the vernacular and incorporating area culture, leading Sister Frances Jean Terrazas, MCDP, to travel to Mexico in the mid-’60s for cultural study. She had been teaching guitar and assisting the Ortas with the Mexican Choir at St. Patrick Parish and was excited about sharing a recording of the Cuernavaca Mariachi Mass with them on her return, hoping they could start one in the parish.
Jesse was in a terrible car accident, though, requiring a long recovery, so things were postponed until he was back on his feet in 1968. Well-known in music circles for leading Jesse Orta and his Big Band in the 1940s and 1950s, he gathered together musicians who carefully listened to Sister Frances Jean’s recorded music over and over, writing it down for their instruments — the guitar, violin, trumpet, guitarron, requinto and others.
Josephine could play any instrument she picked up, recalls her daughter, Carol Zuniga. “It could be an accordion, the violin, trombone; it could be the trumpet, a clarinet,” she says. “She was very talented.” Josephine gave free guitar lessons at the Villa Maria convent on Augusta to anyone who wanted to learn.
The Ortas’ first Mariachi Mass took place in 1969 at Our Lady of Peace Chapel, a mission church of St. Patrick Parish, followed by Masses at St. Patrick and Mission San José. “This year we celebrated our 46th year of being a mariachi,” says Carol of the group, which includes both choir and musicians. Over the years, they took on different names, depending where they played — Mariachi y Coro de San Patricio at St. Patrick, Mariachi y Coro de San José Mision at San José. When Jesse and Josephine became Cursillistas, the group centered at Immaculate Conception Parish and became Mariachi y Coro Cursillistas and Mariachi y Coro de Colores.
People were excited when they heard the new Mass and wanted to learn it, and the group was invited to numerous churches and even out of state and grew in size. “My mom and dad were the type who would invite everyone to join,” says Zuniga. “Everyone was welcome. That was the premise, to learn and then go out and do it and spread it.” The larger size necessitated large rooms in which to practice, such as St. Patrick’s basement and the Cursillistas’ big room at Immaculate Conception.
A scrapbook is filled with memorabilia and letters thanking the Ortas. From Mission San Francisco de la Espada, Father Manuel Martinez, OFM, wrote: “Dear Mr. Orta, Mariachi and Choir, we were very pleased and happy to have you with us and share your wonderful spirit. I believe your apostolate is reaching the hearts of many people.” A letter from Sacred Heart Parish thanked the mariachi and choir for being a part of the first Mass in Spanish for Archbishop Francis J. Furey. They also became part of the annual La Pastorela performed at Mission San José.
In fact, they became so popular they had as many as four Masses to do in a single day. Their size had also grown though, with as many as 40 musicians and 60 choir members, so they would split up into separate groups, all using one name.
Members range in age from 6 years to 90-year-old Aurora Castro, who took on leading the choir after the passing of Josephine, her sister, in 1980. “They wanted someone from the family, so I stepped in,” says Aurora modestly. “I was shy, but little by little, I improved.” “Anybody can join,” adds Danielle Charles, present director of the mariachis. Her mother, the Ortas’ daughter Geraldine “Boo Boo” Charles, was the group’s director until her passing in 2004. Danielle’s father, Osvaldo Charles, is still in the choir. She has future plans to study mariachi at Texas State University.
Archbishop Patrick F. Flores, a former musician himself, was a big supporter of the Ortas and their Mariachi Mass, assisting them with getting mariachi outfits made. As a priest in Houston, he had introduced the first Mariachi Mass around the same time Sister Frances Jean brought it here.
Special occasions the group has performed for include visits by Pope John Paul II, First Lady Barbara Bush and Mother Teresa of Calcutta. They appeared on Sixty Minutes with Harry Reasoner and performed in front of the Alamo for the nationally televised special, Christmas in San Antonio. Recipients of the Margil Award for service at Our Lady of the Lake University, the Ortas also received the Ruben Fuentes Pioneer Award for the Mariachi Vargas Extravaganza Music Hall of Fame in 2000, which Geraldine received posthumously in 2006.
Cassettes and, later, CDs of their music were in high demand for a number of years, though the supply has run out. People come from all over the world to San José Mission, notes Carol, and some make return visits. “They ask if we are still selling them,” she says, “because theirs are getting old and they want another.” Someday they hope to be able to make new recordings.
The mariachi and choir continue to play at the weekly 12:30 p.m. Sunday Mass at Mission San José. Some members have passed away; others moved away, bringing the Mariachi Mass to new places as its founders always intended. New members are always joining though, such as harpist Linda Garrahan, whose harp now adds a new dimension to the music. Aurora points out they are always happy to accept new members, no auditions needed. “It has always been an open door policy,” adds Carol. “Everyone’s invited and it will always remain so.”
A special feature of the San José Mariachi Mass is inviting those celebrating a birthday or anniversary to stand before the altar at the end of the service and be serenaded. “It adds a lot of fraternity,” says Carol, and her family members concur.
“I really love doing this,” says Aurora, who, at 90, wonders how much longer she’ll continue to lead the choir. Perhaps before long she’ll be passing the baton to her niece, Carol, she muses. Carol laughs, imagining herself as a 90-year-old choir director. “Am I going to be you?” she kids her Aunt Aurora. Meanwhile, Danielle smiles knowingly. “In 30 years,” she says to her Aunt Carol, pointing to the older aunt and niece duo, “this will be us — me being you.”