jrodriguez@mercurynews.com

SAN JOSE -- Mariachi music fans here have had mixed feelings about their annual festival since the addition of Latino rock 'n' roll, salsa music and even opera to the lineup. But this may be the year mariachi enthusiasts rise up and demand their festival back.

Established in 1992, the former San Jose International Mariachi Festival began its transition several years ago to Viva Fest, a more expansive celebration of traditional Mexican and contemporary U.S. Latino music and art. Big-name Latino rock stars, including Carlos Santana and Los Lobos, joined indie and salsa bands and even a Mexican opera star on stages where traditional mariachi bands once reigned supreme.

Viva Fest director Marcela Davison Aviles said the event had to attract new audiences, especially younger Latinos and non-Hispanics, to increase revenue for a student mariachi workshop run by the Mexican Heritage Corp., the San Jose-based nonprofit she also heads

"The business of producing a festival like this and achieving our mission," Aviles said, "means that we can't be speaking to one cohort of people who love us to death once a year."

But even by Viva Fest standards, the star power of this year's pop and mariachi has dropped dramatically. There will be no big rock concert. The only world-class mariachi band participating this year, Sol de Mexico, has been hired to teach at Viva Fest's student workshops, but the group will actually perform with the San Jose Symphony at the Target Summer Pops festival in August.


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In a way, Aviles said, the festival has become a victim of its own success.

"It just seems like the mainstream promoters have figured out there's this thing called the Latino market," she said. "What does a nonprofit do when it's doing its job of getting people hip to our culture?"

She said her $500,000 festival budget this year can't match the money promoters and theaters are now dangling in front of Latino stars and big-time mariachi groups. At its highest in 2006, she said, the festival budget approached $1 million.

For example, she said, Mexican singer Lila Downs, a previous Viva Fest performer, will perform later this year at Villa Montalvo in Saratoga. Not only that, Aviles said, the new competitors aren't student mariachi workshops.

"Our mission remains promoting and keeping the musical and artistic heritage of our culture alive," she said, adding that the mission that extends beyond concerts. For example, she said, as schools rediscover the academic value of music instruction, her group advocates including mariachi music in the curriculum. "We've been able to put the spotlight on mariachi music as an educational tool." The annual workshops for about 200 registered students started Friday.

Aviles said her business strategy must change once again. One possible model: the Aspen Music Festival and School, which puts on dozens of workshops, concerts and discussions over eight weeks every summer and attracts up to 70,000 fans and students.

A transition like that would take a long time, so Aviles plans on staying with the blended Latino pop and traditional mariachi formula of the past several years.

But to others, the musical downsizing of this year's Viva Fest is proof the mixed-music approach has failed and it's time to return to a mariachi-only lineup.

"I don't think it's working," Ballin said. "Mariachi should stick to what mariachi is, but they don't believe in that."

Until now, many in the local mariachi community have stewed over the changes but kept quiet. Ballin said his colleagues still hoped to be invited to play, even on the minor stages.

"They have to be politic about it," he said.

Rudy Rodriguez, a Mexican Heritage board member from 2002 to 2007, said he opposed the "dilution" of the mariachi-only festival.

"We wanted to keep the focus on the tradition of mariachi," Rodriguez said. He added that some local mariachis had complained to him privately but were reluctant to speak out. "I didn't want to create a mutiny or cause anything like that."

Rodriguez and others cite mariachi-only festivals in the Southwest that have survived and prospered and offer more student workshops than Viva Fest. Noberta Fresquez, director of the Albuquerque's mariachi festival, said she's never needed for-profit partners to get world-class mariachi bands or added non-mariachi acts in 24 years.

"We don't deal with big-time promoters. We've built relationships and we deal directly with the groups," she said. "Our mission is very clear. There's no reason to promote any other type of music when it's not part of our mission."

The mariachi festival in Tucson, Arizona, which inspired the first San Jose festival in 1992, fell on hard times but survived by merging with a local nonprofit Latino health center that offers administrative and marketing expertise.

In San Antonio, Texas, the mariachi-only festival has become a prosperous, for-profit affair. Mariachi enthusiasts started it in 1979 but never established a nonprofit organization to keep it going. The festival bogged down after several years but was jump-started by Ford Motor and today is sponsored by AHMSA International, a Mexican steel company.

"It would have been dead," said Cynthia Muñoz, producer of the annual Mariachi Vargas Extravaganza. "With the support of these companies, it's amazing how much mariachi music has grown."

She said about 5,000 San Antonio students study mariachi music in year-round workshops operated by the festival in area schools.

"There you go!" Ballin said. "They can do it here if they wanted to."

Go to www.vivafest.org for a listing of performances and other cultural events throughout the year.

Contact Joe Rodriguez at 408-920-5767. Follow him at Twitter.com/joerodmercury.