Young Diné earns top prize at Mariachi event
By Shondiin Silversmith
WINDOW ROCK, January 3, 2013
T o Nizhoni Begay, mariachi music is more than "just a group of people singing in a restaurant."
Of course it might mean more to you too if you won….
The 14-year-old Diné girl, who lives in San Antonio, Texas, tied for first place in the high school vocal category on Dec. 1 at the 18th annual Mariachi Vargas Extravaganza in San Antonio.
The Mariachi Vargas Extravaganza is a seven-day mariachi music festival that features the best mariachi music in the world.
It is known as "the largest and longest running mariachi music festival of its kind in Texas and serves as host to the largest and most competitive mariachi group and vocal competitions in the United States", according to the event website.
Begay sang "Costumbres", which tied her for first.
Of those who think that mariachi is just about people singing in restaurants, Begay said, "To me mariachi is so much more. It's almost like an orchestra but with voices. It's like a culture almost for Mexican people."
Begay, a freshman at Incarnate Word High School, said during a telephone interview that this was a great accomplishment because it is difficult for any freshman to earn first place at this competition.
She tied with senior Yomara Cortez of Roma High, another Texas school.
"It feels so good, I feel so accomplished. You see so much talent in all those kids and I was the best out of the whole category, that's pretty amazing," Begay said. "It really showed that if I do put all this effort and put all this work into trying to interpret the song, work with the song, and perfect the song this could happen."
"I put a lot of work into one, two- or three-minute song, it feels really, really rewarding," she added.
Despite her sense of accomplishment, Begay said she still has some work to do.
"I still think there is always room for improvement," Begay said. "I am really, really strict about practicing. I practice almost everyday to really perfect something."
Begay said she chose to sing "Costumbres," because it was highly recommended by a member of Mariachi Vargas.
"It really did suit my voice really well."
She said that after her song is chosen the first thing to do is translate the lyrics so she can feel what the song is about.
"You kind of have a sense of what that person is going through and how they feel. I just try to feel what that other person is feeling. What the composer thought when writing this song," she said.
Not being fluent in Spanish herself she said that she uses Google translate, "I can keep up, but I read and write better than I speak."
Begay's father, Tommy Begay, a native of Sawmill, Ariz., said he is happy for his daughter's recent accomplishment.
He added that when he listens to his daughter perform it's very emotional because the music has to "get down to the soul and you can feel it."
Begay, who resides in Tucson, Ariz. working at the University of Arizona, said he tries to see his daughter perform as often as he can despite the distance.
"Every opportunity she gets (usually during summer break), Nizhoni visits her nálí and extended family on the Navajo Nation. She would like to compose a Mariachi song that speaks about the beauty of her Diné roots," he said.
Nizhoni Begay is Naakai (Mexican), born for Hashtl'ishnii (Mud Clan).
Begay was introduced to mariachi music in elementary school when she lived in Tucson, Ariz. and joined the mariachi group in second grade.
"I loved it so much. I think just the sound is amazing," she said.
"I just love mariachi music. It's almost like a music that unifies people. It warms your heart," she added. "Mariachi has changed my life so much, and I really enjoy what I am doing."
Her mother said, "She has always been a dedicated and disciplined worker. Anything that she sets her mind to she does very well in."
This was the sixth time Begay competed in the Mariachi Vargas Vocal Competition, but it isn't her first time taking home the top prize.
She also took home first place in the middle school category in 2010.
To see Begay's performance visit YouTube and search Nizhoni Begay Mariachi Vargas 2012.