Dahlia Guerra's Immeasurable Influence: Guiding UTRGV Mariachi Aztlan's to Excellence

Words by Omar E. Zapata

Edited by Abigail Vela

Editor’s Note: Omar authored this story as a cohort member of the Pluma Libre: 2023 Trucha Writing Fellowship.

“Ohtli” is an Aztec gender-neutral name for road or path, and it perfectly describes Dr. Dahlia Guerra’s forty-year career that has guided hundreds and influenced thousands more through Mariachi music. When Guerra first started the UTRGV Mariachi in 1989, she had no idea the ensemble would turn into the premiere university mariachi program in the nation, all while positively impacting generations of students and spreading Mexican culture. 

Guerra’s Influence

The Edinburg native is currently the special assistant to the dean of the UTRGV College of Fine Arts but has been through it all in her forty years at the university: From a lecturer, dean of the College of Fine Arts, chair of the music department, to the assistant vice president for Public Arts and Special projects. Guerra founded the award-winning, nationally recognized  UTRGV Mariachi Ensemble Program and the annual literacy and arts program, FESTIBA

Even before her high-ranking positions and influence at the university and worldwide, from birth, it seemed like Guerra’s destiny would involve music. Coming from a musical family with her aunts playing piano, her preacher grandfather singing, and her father playing the harmonica, which he picked up and helped him survive at a Nazi Germany prisoner of war camp, she followed in the family’s musical steps.
 

“It was never really a choice, but I wouldn’t have it any other way,” she mentioned about her father making her play the piano at an early age. “It was just a path I took, and it’s a solitary life as a pianist. You spend a lot of time with yourself and your instrument.” Already having a background in music early in her life, her family’s yearly summer trips around Mexico fueled her passion for music, especially Mexican folk music. 


“I always appreciated that about the Mexican people; I admired their creativity,” Guerra said, “They used the arts to alleviate what sadness or trials and tribulation they were going through. […] I was always thinking about how the arts can impact well-being and the ability to express yourself. If anything, the Mexican culture inspired that within me.” 

A woman with brown hair and a red dress stands and talks on a podium while an older woman stands beside her, holding a blue folder and smiling. A man in a suit stands next to the older woman.
Photo obtained from Mariachi Aztlán of the University of Texas-Río Grande Valley Facebook.

The Legacy of UTRGV’s Mariachi Aztlan

1989 was a significant year for Guerra for not only taking a leap of faith with the mariachi program’s inception but also taking a leave of absence from legacy institution Pan American University to obtain her doctorate at the University of Oklahoma.  With no promises of a job, once she returned, she went back and forth between the university, all while experiencing the joys and challenges of being a first-time mom. 

 

“It was a very busy time in my life, but I was enjoying all of it,” Guerra reflected. Already helping and performing with the iconic UTRGV Ballet Folklorico, the group asked her if she could start a mariachi program at the university to go alongside the dance company. “I guess I can do this,” she shared. “I’m not a mariachi, but I am a musician, and I know what they’re doing musically.”  

 

With the local high school mariachi programs growing, UTPA became a feeder school for talent in the area. She explained, “They were coming in with a certain amount of proficiency and knowledge, and then Francisco Loera joined and added that element of mariachi as an actual mariachi performer,” she observed. 

 

Growing from a handful of students to a strong fifty in the mariachi program this upcoming year, Mariachi Aztlan has gained the title of best university mariachi in the nation with all the qualifications of a professional mariachi.

 

With the addition of Francisco Loera as co-director and several years of building up the program’s reputation, the campus and the community showed more support for the mariachi. “The more we were out there [performing], the more invitations we got,” Guerra said. “We started going all over the country, which became Mariachi Atzlan.” 

 

Mariachi Aztlan has a plethora of highlights in its thirty years, from performing for former President Barack Obama, winning numerous competitions, invitations to the Houston Grand Opera performing the first ever mariachi opera, to going on tour with the queen of mariachi music Aida Cuevas. “It was amazing to give these opportunities to kids that had never left the Valley, so to start playing at the Kennedy Center and the Hollywood Bowl, for President Obama— these were amazing experiences for these kiddos,” Guerra expressed. The program also has several previous members go on to join professional mariachis, such as Sol De Mexico

President Barack Obama listens as a mariachi band performs in the Grand Foyer before the signing ceremony for the Executive Order for the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanic Americans in the East Room of the White House, Oct. 19, 2010. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

“I feel very grateful and honored [to see how far the program has come,] and it blows me away sometimes. I think I’m dreaming,” Guerra shared. “So, did I dream [we would get to this point]? No way. I just thought I was trying something new and enjoying music. And I just love all the kids that would show up […] We started building this family of mariachi.” 

 

Dahlia Guerra estimates that around four to five hundred have gone through the program throughout the thirty-year journey of Mariachi Aztlan. With many becoming music teachers, directors, performers, and even lawyers or doctors all over Texas and the nation, Guerra’s influence is immeasurable. 

 

“I never dreamed that it would go that far,” Guerra expressed. “We’re just now putting out a mariachi [degree] concentration. So I’d like to see what happens in 25 years, see where it went. Even if I’m not on campus or even in heaven, I’ll be looking down and find out what kind of an impact this program has made.” 

Embodying Ohtli

Besides giving the students these experiences through the mariachi program, Guerra mentioned she was grateful to help in other areas of life, from advising them on what classes they should take to assisting students in finding a place to live when they were on the brink of homelessness. 

 

“That’s why I say it’s a family,” she clarified, “So just the fact we could have helped that many kids, that’s the most important thing to me. I feel really proud of that. And then those who have finished their programs and gotten a degree, I feel like that is a huge accomplishment […] spreading the beauty of mariachi across the US.” 

 

Through her decades of hard work and trailblazing, she was given the Ohtli Award by the Mexican Consulate of McAllen in 2021. The award is given to individuals for their work in prompting and supporting the Mexican culture and diaspora. 

 

“I was really touched by the award,” Guerra expressed, “Ohtli means someone who makes a path. And I think of an image of an Aztec Indian […] with a machete going through the forest, making a path for people to follow. I think that’s beautiful imagery.” Guerra also recently received a proclamation in her honor from the Texas House of Representatives for her significant role in advancing mariachi music in the United States. “We are at the pinnacle of what one can accomplish [as a] mariachi program at a university,” Guerra stated.

Asked what advice she could give to students, women, or anyone venturing into an unknown avenue, just like she did in 1989, she replied, “Don’t be afraid to just jump in and try something new. What do you have to lose? I wasn’t afraid to try it. I met some resistance [starting the program], but just have the courage to move forward and believe in what you’re doing. My heart told me that the style [and] the culture were important for our students. There’s nothing to stop anyone from pursuing something that seems interesting, valid, good for your community, good for the student body, good for the heart, good for the soul.”

A document of HR 1454 presented by the Texas House of Representatives in honor of Dahlia Guerra.
HR 1454 in honor of Dahlia Guerra. Photo obtained from Mariachi Aztlán of the University of Texas-Río Grande Valley Facebook.

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