The history of women in mariachi music
A Look at the History of Women in Mariachi Music
by Laura Sobrino
In December 1977, Leonor Xochitl Perez invited me to lunch to discuss my participation on a panel for a paper she was presenting at UCLA on women in mariachi music. I had not seen Leonor since 1978 when I first arrived in Los Angeles to perform as a mariachi. During that lunch, we discovered we had something in common, an interest to document a history of women in mariachi music. We agreed to work together, the “perfect” team; she was a scholar with experience in mariachi performance, and I, a pioneer mariachi with a B.A. in ethnomusicology, specializing in Mexican folk musics.
We began this project in January 1998 and it is considered a work still in progress. We questioned whether we would be able to find documentation to support historical claims. We sent out emails (gracias a Dios for the Internet) to all of our academic and musician contacts around the world, and crossed our fingers. Two of our most trusted contacts, Jonathan Clark from San Jose, California and Antonio Covarrubias from Mexico City, Mexico, helped us us to secure rare photos of female mariachis and all-female mariachi groups from both Mexico and the United States, providing the documentation that we needed. Many other friends, including Rebecca Gonzales, Gilbert Martinez and Ray and Maribel Medina, also provided us with photos. As we collected the data and established time lines, we were amazed at how far back the participation of women in this long-standing all-male tradition actually goes. Can you believe the 1940’s?
Thanks to Dan Sobrino, our webmaster, the current version of “A History of Women in Mariachi Music” can be found on the Internet at www.mariachipublishing.com .
In the mariachi world, there are currently many claims to “firsts”. Since a history of women in mariachi music had never been documented, ignorance and deceptive advertising took reign. In Mexico, there are yellow pages containing ads in which groups call themselves “the first all-female mariachi in the world.” Also, in the United States it is common to hear announcers introduce all-female mariachi groups as “the first.” However, our work, supported by legitimate documentation, shows a tradition of all-female mariachi groups that started at least fifty years ago.
It is our hope that our documentation will bring to light the importance of women in mariachi music over many years, as well as their participation in this music genre, and to dispel some misinformation that the public is receiving.
Producer Rodri J. Rodriguez has presented the annual MARIACHI USA Festival at the Hollywood Bowl for over ten years. In those years, the presence of female mariachis performing in her show has notably increased. In 1991 Rodri presented 15 women (all from male dominant groups from throughout California) who, under the direction of Rebecca Gonzales and I, performed to thunderous applause. The idea of an all-female mariachi was well received and so this group opened the doors to the novelty that a group of women could also play mariachi music, not just sing it. Then in 1993, Rodri first presented the all-female mariachi show group, Las Perlitas Tapatias, from Guadalajara, Jalisco. In 1994, Rodri introduced the debut performance of the Los Angeles based all-female mariachi show group, Mariachi Reyna de Los Angeles. In the 1999 festival, Rodri selected two all-female mariachi show groups as well as one mixed-gender group for her tenth anniversary show. This is to say that about half of the performers in that even were women mariachis.
Having all-female groups exposed to large audiences has created an interest in this phenomenon. And the question is always asked: “When did women become a part of this all-male musical tradition?” While it seems that all-female mariachis are a “symbol of the 90’s”, the truth is that women have been a part of mariachi performance for over fifty years!
I have been performing mariachi music since early 1975 as an undergraduate at UC Santa Cruz. To this day, I receive compliments on my “costume” (uniform!) and hear the comment, “Its nice to see a girl playing mariachi! How long have you been playing?” I’m amazed when I recall that when I arrived in Los Angeles about twenty years ago, there were only a small handful of women mariachis. The numbers radically increased over time. Back then we were women mariachi violinists in our twenties, just of of college. Now it is not uncommon for a young girl of eight to say to her parents, “I want to be a mariachi musician when I grow up.” Back then, women were mainly violinists in mariachi groups. Now, women have dominated all the traditional mariachi instruments; violin, trumpet, vihuela, guitarrón, guitar and guitarra de golpe, and are also arranging and writing original compositions.
In the 1970’s, Rebecca Gonzales and I were the only women in the top male-dominated mariachi show groups in Los Angeles. Today, all-female mariachi show groups play top billing alongside these same groups.
The earliest documentation that we have received thus far of all-female mariachi groups in Mexico is Mariachi Las Coronelas, directed by Carlota Noriega. This pioneer mariachi group performed in the mid-1940’s in Mexico City.
By the early 1950’s, two more all-female groups emerged in Mexico City, Mariachi Las Adelitas, directed by Adelita Chavez, and Mariachi Michoacano. In the early 1960’s, Lupita Morales directed Mariachi Las Estrellas de Mexico.
We have yet to investigate how these Mexican all-female groups were organized, where they performed and how they performed. Among our questions are: were they a “show” group or a “standard” mariachi with a large repertoire? One can only assume that the groups disbanded as some of the women married and began to have children. It is our intent to further our investigation by interviewing as many of the women as possible.
In the United States, the ’70’s was a decade of strong multi-cultural and women’s movements. In 1975, I attended a class, “The Music of Mexico” at UCSC, taught by Dr. David Kilpatrick. Having studied classical music all my life, I had planned to graduate as a classical music major; it was not in my plans to study anything else. For some reason, I wound up in that classroom, which we can possibly now call “destiny.” That first day, I remained in the classroom long after everyone had left because there was something about that first time I heard traditional Mexican music. I did not make a conscious decision to devote my life to becoming a mariachi musician because of any multi-cultural or women’s movements. However, it is possible that because of these movements I did not fear where my heart wanted to take me, simply to be a mariachi performer.
Many tried to convince me that I was making a wrong choice: why would a classically trained violinists want to perform “bar” music? I must be crazy!
In talking with Rebecca Gonzales, we have discovered many parallel experiences on our road to becoming pioneer mariachi women. We were both classical violinists playing a youth symphony circuit in the San Jose, California area. She was raised in the San Jose area, and I was raised in nearby Watsonville. We both encountered a UCLA ethnomusicologist who introduced us to mariachi music (Mark Fogelquist and David Kilpatrick). And we both decided that despite opposition, often from our own families, sometimes from cultural stereotypes, and mostly from some of the male mariachi musicians themselves, we were going to be mariachi musicians. It never occurred to me that I was a female going into an all-male tradition and that I would one day be a role model, opening doors for the future generations of female mariachi musicians. Instead, both Rebecca and I were motivated by our love for mariachi performance. It was this passion that inspired us to take on the mariachi world.
Thus far, the earliest documentation of a female performing with a traditionally all-male mariachi show group in the United States is violinist Rebecca Gonzales, the first “Campera” (the female version of a Campero, from Mariachi Los Camperos de Nati Cano). I recall traveling in 1975 to LA just to visit the La Fonda Restaurant, where this mariachi has performed for years, to see Rebecca perform. I wanted to see for myself that there truly was a woman allowed to perform with such a prestigious group. I wanted to be just like her, performing the music of our souls.
In 1978, I finally got my chance to perform with a group in Los Angeles, Mariachi Uclatlan de Mark Fogelquist, with which I learned more about repertoire that I could have ever imagined. It wasn’t until 1979, that Pedro Rey invited me to rehearse with the Mariachi Los Galleros, where I became their first female member. I was given six months to learn their standard show repertoire and learned it in three! Soon, I became section leader, meaning that the other <male> violinists had to follow me! You can imagine the uproar and there was even a protest, which quickly got a member of the group fired. Fortunately, by the time I was a first violinist for Mariachi Sol de Mexico in 1986, many more female mariachi musicians had emerged and “revolts” diminished.
There are two pioneer all-female mariachi groups that emerged in the 70’s in the United States, Mariachi Las Generalas from Los Angeles, California and Mariachi Estrella from Topeka, Kansas. Both groups’ earliest performance commitments were to perform for weekly Catholic mass services.
Around 1976 in Los Angeles, Maria Elena Muñoz had a vision to form an all-female mariachi group. She had never seen Rebecca Gonzales nor myself perform in the professional mariachi show circuit. According to Adela Valdez, a former member of Las Generalas and Muñoz’s comadre, her plan was to prove one point: she wanted to establish that women could indeed play mariachi music, and that one day the male mariachis themselves would be playing alongside her group. Later, many of the male mariachis who had voiced an opposition to her group, did eventually play alongside Mariachi Las Generalas.
How did she start this group? Mrs. Muñoz called all of her friends to network and find female musicians. Adela Valdez, was one of the first women to commit to the project. Maria Elena approached Adela asking her, “Can you play <any instruments>?” Adela answered, “One or two chords on the guitar. Why?” “That’s good enough!” responded Mrs. Muñoz. Adela was already recognized as a ranchera singer in their community. Eventually, there were enough women pledged to the project to begin rehearsals. Most were mothers of wives of mariachi musicians.
The group convinced Muñoz’s son, Juan Matías, to instruct them during some of his free time. “Matías”, as he was known in the Los Angeles mariachi circuit, was a professional mariachi performer in some of the top mariachi show groups. In fact, he is recognized by many mariachi musicians as the first to introduce singing in English in mariachi shows. Some women, like the violinists and the guitarist, already knew how to play their instruments while others had to start learning their instrument’s basics from scratch. Matías taught them the mariachi mass (“La Misa Panamericana”), one of the easier things to begin learning. Within a few months, they began to learn more standard repertoire that was required in order to perform at the weddings and baptisms they were booking. Mariachi Las Generalas eventually even performed for many local politicians’ events.
During the entire existence of this group, the notion of a woman performing mariachi music was strongly opposed. The husbands of many of the women in Mariachi Las Generalas told them that they were “making fools of themselves.” In fact, several of the women in the group were forced to leave because of the stress it was causing their marriages. One of the husbands broke a trumpet into pieces in order to show his disgust. Another broke a guitar. Muñoz would just look for replacements for these members because she was not about to give up her goal. Many times, members of Las Generalas were told that women did not belong performing in the mariachi environment. Muñoz would respond, “Mariachi music is not JUST cantina music.” Muñoz was adamant that the mariachi ambience did not have to reflect negative stereotypes. She wanted to prove everyone wrong. She wanted to show that women could do this.
Around 1983, several of the women’s families were moving to Texas and some were considering retiring from the group. María Elena Muñoz felt that it was time to let go of Mariachi Las Generalas. By the early 1980’s, many women were performing mariachi music in the Los Angeles area. Muñoz saw her vision become reality. “I feel a great deal of pride that Las Generalas may have motivated more women to play <mariachi>,” she says.
I first met Teresa Cuevas, from Topeka, Kansas and co-director of Mariachi Estrella, in the early 1980’s. She was a recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) grant to study mariachi violin style. She preferred to study with a female mariachi. One of the NEA rules for these types of grants is that the Master Teacher be born into the musical tradition to be studied. At that time, there was no knowledge of the extensive history of women in mariachi music, but Teresa seemed to understand the importance of establishing a female mariachi Master Teacher with the NEA. She insisted and successfully appointed me as her Master Teacher. Teresa came to live with me in my home for about two months to study mariachi violin style.
In 1977, Teresa Cuevas and Consuelo Alcala formed Mariachi Estrella, comprised of six to seven women mariachi instrumentalists, to lay for weekly Catholic masses. (This decision was completely independent and not influenced by Mariachi Las Generalas in Los Angeles.) It wasn’t until a year or so later that they began to expand their repertoire to include more popular mariachi music in order to contract engagements outside the church. According to Ms. Cuevas, who is now in her late-eighties, the group became very popular and had just begun doing private gigs. It was during one of those first gigs, a New Year’s party, that Mariachi Estrella found themselves in a large hotel, crossing an indoor ramp when it collapsed. Four of her six musicians fell to their deaths. Teresa, herself, was trapped in the debris for what must have felt like an eternity.
Teresa Cuevas’ determination and strong spirit got her through that tragic time and she returned to her original quest to learn all she could about mariachi violin. Her dream was to pass this knowledge of cultural heritage on to her grandchildren, as well as many others in her community. Today, she is still performing with Mariachi Estrella, now a mixed-gender mariachi group. Several of her grandchildren play alongside.
With such a strong history of female participation in the mariachi tradition, it is no wonder that we have passed generations of tests with flying colors. We women mariachis have had to equal men in musical technique and performance, in physical stamina, and triumph over social stereotypes. Some of us did it for the pure love of mariachi music and others to challenge the norms. Whereas fifty years ago, mariachi music was a tradition that was passed on from father to son, we now see mariachi families, mother and father, teaching their children about the music. Fifty years ago, a mariachi family dynasty ended if the new generation produced no male heirs. Now, it is socially acceptable for a male mariachi, even in Mexico, to have his daughters continue their family’s inheritance.
What will the millennium mean to the female tradition in mariachi music? Whatever it may bring, I hope that with the history of women in mariachi tradition well rooted in both Mexico and the United States, and around the world, our compañero musicians, the mariachi aficionados and the public alike will respect us, and enjoy the endless talent that we have to offer.
Unique Women in Mariachi Music
(A condensed overview of the data we have collected thus far)
Lucha Reyes, who began her recording career in the mid-1930’s, was the first female super-star in the ranchera genre. She was very popular internationally and was the first Mexican woman to perform outside of Mexico. She toured Europe and the United States.
Formed in the mid-1940’s, Mariachi Las Coronelas was Mexico’s pioneer all-female grop.
(back, L to R: Juanita Torres Custodio, guitar; Maria Juarez Clemente, violin; Cecilia Moya Jaimes, trumpet; Yolanda Villareal Espinoza, violin; Hilda Lopez Soto, violin; Maria de los Angeles, violin. front: Guadalupe Hernandez, guitar; and Maria Carlota Noriega Marquez, guitarron.)
In Los Angeles, Mariachi Las Generalas formed around 1976, was recently discovered to be the first all-female group in the United States.
Maria del Refugio and Juanita
Maria Elena Muñoz
Lupe and Marta
Aurora Prado Pastrano
Mariachi Estrella from Topeka, KS, the second pioneer all-female mariachi in the U.S., was formed in 1977 by Teresa Cuevas and Consuelo Alcala.
(L to R) Rachel Galvan, Dolores Galvan, Consuelo Alcala, Teresa Cuevas (director), Linda Scurlock, Lola Carmona. Not pictured: Isabel Gonzalez. (1977-1981).
The newest all-female mariachi show group, Mariachi Mujer 2000, directed by Marisa Orduño, with Laura Sobrino as musical director.
Top row (L to R): Mayra Martinez, Lubella Gauna, Beatriz Herrera, Amelia Garcia, Maria Elena Perez, Megan Starks, Suemy Gonzalez, Mirna Orozco.
Bottom row (L to R): Laura Sobrino, Nydia Rojas Bocanegra, Marisa Orduño.
(L to R): Rebecca Gonzalez, Monica Trevino and Laura Garciacano Sobrino. (c.1995)
Junko Seki, from Japan, on U.S. concert tour. She is now studying mariachi trumpet and perfecting her Spanish in Mexico.
Three of the contemporary female ranchera singers in traditional uniforms.
Lucha Reyes became ranchera music’s first female superstar. She is considered the mother of all female mariachi vocalists
Mexico City’s first all-female group, “Mariachi Las Coronelas,” was directed by Carlota Noriega in the mid-1940s.
Mariachi Las Coronelas, circa 1970. (back, L to R: Juanita Torres Custodio, guitar; Maria Juarez Clemente, violin; Cecilia Moya Jaimes, trumpet; Yolanda Villareal Espinoza, violin; Hilda Lopez Soto, violin; Maria de los Angeles, violin. front: Guadalaupe Hernandez, guitar; and Maria Carlota Noriega Marquez, guitarron).