Federico Torres, a longtime trumpeter with Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlán who will retire this fall after 48 years with the ensemble, has witnessed many milestones in his illustrious career. Chief among them has been the the group’s performances with Latin music greats such as composer José Alfredo Jiménez, singers Pedro Infante, Jorge Negrete and Lola Beltrán, and composer-producer-singer Juan Gabriel. But his biggest thrill came when he and his Mariachi Vargas colleagues realized that audiences wanted to hear the band, not just the legendary stars the ensemble accompanied.

Federico Torres of Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlán | Photo AKA Productions

Founded in 1898, in the Mexican state of Jalisco, Mariachi Vargas began as a largely instrumental ensemble. Then in 1937, after performing in the first of more than 200 movies, it became best known as the backing band for Mexico’s greatest stars of stage and screen. Finally, in the 1980s, it dawned on the group that “wow, we’ve the ones they’re coming to see,” said Torres, now on his farewell tour with Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlán, which will appear Sept. 28 in a Symphony Center Presents Special Concert at Orchestra Hall. “We always performed with Mexico’s biggest stars, and it was an honor to perform onstage and in the studio with them because they could have performed with anyone. But after decades in such close musical partnerships, we [Mariachi Vargas] were in the spotlight. We were now the headliners.”

Though his 48-year tenure makes Torres one of the band’s longest-serving members, his run is eclipsed by that of the group’s artistic director, Rubén Fuentes, who joined Mariachi Vargas as a violinist at age 18 in 1944. After stepping down from active duty in 1985, Fuentes continues to serve as producer, arranger and artistic director — at age 88. Along with José Alfredo Jiménez, who like Fuentes wrote many ranchera songs that Mariachi Vargas turned into standards, Fuentes shaped the direction of mariachi music and helped to popularize it as Mexico’s national music genre. 

Among Fuentes’ compositions are “La Negra,” “Como Si Nada,” “La Bikina,” “Que Bonita Es Mi Tierra” and many others that form Mariachi Vargas’ core repertoire. Torres loves them all and doesn’t have a favorite. “I like the songs from Jalisco, the sones [folkloric styles that originated in the states of Jalisco, Guerrero, Michoacán and Veracruz], he said. “But  it’s hard to say which one. Mariachi Vargas is like a [candy store]. You come in the store, and you want everything,” he added with a laugh. “But in general, I prefer the older songs.”

Also retiring this year is another longtime Mariachi Vargas leader,  Don Jose “Pepe” Martinez, who since 1975 has been the group’s music director. Carlos Martinez, one of the group’s violinists, has succeeded Don Jose. Meanwhile, Pepe Martinez is composing his second mariachi opera, El Pasado Nunca Se Termina (“The Past Is Never Finished”), which will have its world premiere March 28-29 at Lyric Opera of Chicago — with Mariachi Vargas performing onstage. Along with Broadway director Leonard Foglia, Pepe Martinez co-wrote Cruzar la Cara de la Luna (“To Cross the Face of the Moon”), which Lyric Opera presented in its 2012-2013 season, after the work received its world debut in 2010 at Houston Grand Opera. 

Despite his retirement from the road, Torres will continue his association with Mariachi Vargas. “I’m not going to be going completely away,” he said. “Like Rubén, I will continue working with group. I handle the contracts and the business side; I’ve done that for a long time. I hope to stay as involved as Rubén, who just recorded two new discs with Mariachi Vargas, one a tribute to Pepe, and another featuring boleros and bachatas. It’s a little different music than usual.”

Bachata, a once rural Dominican genre, has become a chart-topping movement on the Latin pop scene in the last decade. Over the years, Mariachi Vargas managed to remain current by embracing new sounds — and attracting new proteges such as Latin pop stars Luis Miguel and Cristian Castro. “We’ve always stayed culturally relevant while representing [mariachi] music,” Torres said. “Mariachi Vargas has remained in demand all these years because of Rubén Fuentes and his influence. The younger generation can see the musicianship and legacy, and know that, yes, after so many years, Mariachi Vargas is still relevant .That’s why younger artists have always wanted to work with us. Once they establish that relationship, they’re hooked. Meanwhile, Mariachi Vargas can see and appreciate the younger audience. It’s like a symbiotic relationship. Each side benefits.”

It’s this legacy that Torres treasures the most. “I’m so happy to be part of a grand tradition,” he said. “Soon we will celebrate our 115th anniversary, what a milestone. And I will always cherish my friendships in the group. They have become like members of the family.”

PHOTO: Mariachi Vargas de de Tecalitlán in concert at Symphony Center. | Todd Rosenberg Photography