According to Silvester Vargas, the mariachi founded by his father, Gasper Vargas, made its debut on the eve of Independence Day in their home town of Tecalitlán, Jalisco on September 15, 1898. The original four-piece group was identical in instrumentation to the traditional arpa grande ensembles that still exist in the neighboring state of Michoacán: harp, guitiarra de golpe, and two violins.
Silvester was born 1901, and in 1921 he joined his father’s mariachi as a violinist. By 1932, Gasper had turned the leadership of his group over to his son, who expanded it to eight musician and uniformed them in their first charro outfits. The newly-expanded ensemble was invited to perform at the presidential inauguration ceremony of Lázaro Cárdenas in 1934. When President Cárdenas offered the group a salaried employment, Mariachi Vargas moved its home base to Mexico City, where it remains today.
The first decade in Mexico City was difficult one for Mariachi Vargas. Although Silvester promoted his group incessantly, there were already established mariachi’s in that city, and the mariachi trumpet – an instrument Vargas initially refused to add to his band – was already coming into fashion. Silvester’s all-string mariachi was featured occasionally on live radio programs, and in 1937 they made their first phonograph recordings and were featured in their first motion picture.
Silvester Vargas had an uncanny knack for spotting budding talent, and there were two young musicians in particular who were key to mariachi Vargas’s ascent from a regional ensemble to “The Greatest Mariachi in the World.” The first was Miguel Martinez, who in 1942 became the group’s first trumpet player. The second was Rubén Fuentes, who in 1944 became its first musical arranger. Fuentes too the unique, rural style the group had brought with it from Tecalitlán and fused it with the virtuosic urban trumpet of Miguel Martinez in a manner that has yet to be equaled.
There have been great mariachi groups and popular group leaders, but all of their heydays were short compared to Mariachi Vargas. To date, no other mariachi has been able to maintain such a high musical level over such a long period or make as many contributions to the art as Vargas. While other group leaders mainly focused on short term goals, Silvester Vargas approached his mariachi as if he were building a permanent institution.
In 1952, Gasper Vargas retired from the group, and in 1958, Silvester was forced to scale back his activities due to poor health. But by that time, Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlán was already widely known as “El Mejor Mariachi del Mundo,” and the seeds of their long-term success were well-planted.
Gasper Vargas will always be remembered as the founder of the most important and longest continuously-existing mariachi group in history, as well as one of the most formidable mariachi rhythm section players of all time. Although Silvester Vargas was an extraordinary traditional mariachi violinist, he is remembered today as the greatest mariachi group organizer in visionary history.