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By Kat Zukaitis
Article used with permission from South Coast Repertory.

Mariachi Nuevo San José, featuring Cynthia Reifler Flores(Original Music Arrangements for American Mariachi) on the far left
Mariachi Nuevo San José, featuring Cynthia Reifler Flores (Original Music Arrangements for American Mariachi) on the far left

For the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, the Chinese Olympic Committee selected five musical groups to perform during the Parade of Nations—one from each of the five continents represented by the Olympic rings. Their choice to represent the entirety of the Americas was Mariachi Mujer 2000, an all-female mariachi group based in Los Angeles.

It was a remarkable moment in the spotlight for Mariachi Mujer 2000. The relatively new group was founded in 1999 by Marisa Orduño, a skilled guitarrón player who was determined to take mariachi to a new level of musicality—and to do so with an all-female ensemble, still a relative rarity. Orduño teamed up with violinist Laura Sobrino, a fellow alumna of the Mariachi Reyna de Los Angeles, another prominent all-female ensemble, to scour the country for talented young women with classical music training. Together, they put together a powerhouse team that has performed for Barack Obama and Oprah Winfrey, and at the prestigious Teatro Delgollado in Guadalajara, celebrated as the regional birthplace of mariachi music.

“You know that mariachi is a musical form with roots in the conquest of the New World, right? When Cortez and the Spanish arrived in the New World, they brought the guitar, of course, and the indigenous peoples had drums and flutes. Add religion and you have this mixture, what they call metizaje, of the indigenous, the Spanish, and the African… and out of that comes this really amazing music.” —playwright José Cruz González

Although women have been performing mariachi music for over a century, the field is a traditionally male-dominated one. When it originated in the mid-nineteenth century in the western states of Mexico, most mariacheros were untrained musicians who traveled from rural village to rural village, playing at weddings, fiestas, and funerals. Most played stringed instruments—violin, guitar, guitars de golpe, vihuela, guitarrón and harp—but wind instruments were occasionally added to the mix. Each region developed a unique sound, but they all drew on the blend of Spanish, Mesoamerican, and African influences that shaped the broader Mexican culture.

The most famous ensemble, Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlán, was founded in 1898 in the western state of Jalisco. In the years that followed, the Mexican Revolution (1910-20) displaced millions of people, bringing waves of people to the cities. Post-revolutionary Mexico was hungry to embrace a new national identity, and turned to staples of agrarian culture like the jarabe tapatío, known in English as the Mexican hat dance, which was declared Mexico’s national dance in 1924; and mariachi music, which political elites embraced as a symbol of pride and patriotism. The Plaza Garibaldi in Mexico City—and the Tenampa Bar, serving Jaliscan specialties—became the hub of the mariachi movement.

José Cruz González on Mariachi Vargas: “The mariachi that we now hold up as the world’s best mariachi, as well as the oldest professional group—I guess you could say they did for mariachi what The Beatles did for rock—is Mariachi Vargas. They were responsible for innovations in the instrumentation, and for improving the professionalism and performance level of mariachi. What they do still serves as a model for what you will see today, in the virtuosity of the musicianship, the vocal strength, and the quality of the work.”

By the 1930s, mariachi had made the leap from regional tradition to professional discipline. The advent of radio allowed it to reach into households across Mexico, and the music began to become standardized. Cinema only increased its popularity. Urban musicians now trained diligently to reproduce the untaught sounds of early rural mariachi. The first talking movie made in Mexico, Santa (1931), featured another well-known group, Mariachi Coculense, beginning a trend that would come to define both the movies and the music. The comedia ranchera (western comedy) and charro cantor (singing cowboy) genres blossomed during the Golden Age of Mexican Cinema (1933-64), giving a platform to popular mariachi groups. Mariachi Vargas would eventually appear in more than 200 films. Although cinema superstars such as Pedro Infante and Jorge Negrete were not mariachis as such, many of their best-known roles featured them wearing the iconic trajes de charro and singing, cementing the image of the mariachi as a national cultural icon.

Mariachi musicians mostly embraced the proudly masculine reputation of the genre, upholding the tradition of all-male groups. But over the years, women have succeeded in raising their voices (and their violins) and joining the music. As early as 1903, a 13-year-old named Rosa Quirino was performing as a mariachi in the western Mexican state of Nayarit. She eventually led her own mariachi group—although she remained the sole woman in the ensemble and reportedly carried a gun to protect herself from audience members who objected to a woman onstage. The first all-female mariachi group in Mexico City, Adelita y Su Mairachi de Muchachas, formed in 1948. They were joined in the early 1950s by several other mariachis femeniles, all-female mariachi groups who performed on the radio, on the silver screen, and on tour.

“I grew up in a little town on the central coast of California. Ironically, it turns out that one of the pioneers of women’s mariachi in the United States, Laura Sobrino Cano, also grew up there. She was one of the first women to start playing with men, and she’s someone I interviewed. She has passed on now, about three years ago. If you look at the dedication on the script of American Mariachi, you’ll see her name there.” —playwright José Cruz González

But it wasn’t until the women’s liberation movement kicked off in the late 1960s that women’s participation in mariachi became more widespread—especially in the United States. In 1968, Las Rancheritas, an all-female Texan group, visited U.S. troops in Vietnam, thus becoming the first mariachi group to travel to a war zone to perform. Several high schools started mariachi programs that were open to girls. A major breakthrough took place in the 1970s in Los Angeles, the U.S. capital of mariachi, when the talented violinists Rebecca Gonzales and Laura Sobrino joined prestigious all-male groups.

In 1994, Sobrino became the music director of a new group, Mariachi Reyna de Los Angeles, the first commercially successful all-female ensemble. Together with guitarrón player Marisa Orduño, she led Mariachi Mujer 2000, the group that represented the American continent at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. They’re hardly the only success stories. Jazz-trained trumpeter Cindy Shea founded the Mariachi Divas de Los Angeles in 1999, and they’ve since accumulated eight Grammy nominations and two wins. The New York-based group Mariachi Flor de Toloache recently won a Latin Grammy Award. Several dozen women’s mariachi groups perform throughout the United States, and though most handle their own booking and publicity, it’s a number that would have been unimaginable even a few generations ago.

To learn more, check out Patricia Greathouse’s excellent Mariachi and the work of Leonor Xóchitl Pérez, the director and founder of the Women’s Mariachi Festival.