At the Basilica of Our Lady of San Juan del Valle, soaring ceilings and geometric stained glass windows surround a sanctuary where roughly 3,500 devotees gather. The church has long functioned as the heart of the Catholic community in the Rio Grande Valley. Even with social distancing precautions in place, the faithful remain present at the house of worship: when its limited allotment of indoor seats is filled, attendees sit outside on a terrace fitted with speakers, while others watch the livestreamed mass from home.
Since 1985, visitors from around the world have made the pilgrimage to San Juan to hear the stylings of the Basilica’s famous mariachi group. Hailing from the Valley and from Nuevo León, Mexico, the thirteen members, clad in traditional embroidered regalia trimmed with silver-and-gold botonaduras, sing and play devotional music year-round. Christmas carols, pastorelas, Easter songs, and popular hymns are given mariachi arrangements for the bilingual liturgy by musical director Francisco Morales. “One Day at a Time, Sweet Jesus,” composed in 1974 by Marijohn Wilkin and Brownsville native Kris Kristofferson, is a Basilica favorite, known in its Spanish-language adaptation as “Un día a la vez.” Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the group performed in nine masses every weekend. Now they sing for three masses each Sunday, with some of them appearing in alternate weeks; the spacious church allows them to perform with a safe distance between themselves and far from worshippers too. Because of travel restrictions, only the six choir members who live on the U.S. side of the border are available to play, so the musicians currently hesitate to describe themselves as a traditional mariachi, Morales emphasizes. Still, they sing. Even a pandemic can’t stop the music.
This article originally appeared in the January 2021 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “Divine Sounds.” Subscribe today.