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American Mariachi Playwright José Cruz González
American Mariachi Playwright José Cruz González

By Eliana Theologides Rodriguez, South Coast Repertory Literary Intern
Article used with permission from South Coast Repertory.

Eliana Theologides Rodriguez: What is your personal relationship to mariachi music?

José Cruz González: I’ve been a student of mariachi music for about ten years. I first started playing it at California State University, Los Angeles, where I was teaching. I saw a mariachi class perform on our campus in 2009, and I was struck by the fact that we had mariachi in the music department. I reached out to the professor and asked if I could audit the class, and she said absolutely. And so I started this quest, this ten-year odyssey, of learning about mariachi music, and it was one of the most fulfilling experiences I’ve ever had. I have no musical talent in my body, but I really learned to appreciate the music and the culture of mariachi, and I had the privilege to rehearse and play with so many amazing people.

ETR: Lucha is a forceful protagonist, whose name literally translates to “struggle” or “fight.” Are any of the characters in the play inspired by strong women from your life

JCG: Absolutely. I was raised by strong women—my mother was 29 when she was widowed, with four little boys ten and under. She and my grandmother took care of business. They made sure to set us straight and give us opportunities to think beyond our own world and look into the future. Coming from a little farm-working town on the Central Coast, that’s pretty exceptional. They taught us about determination and work ethic, about pursuing dreams. This play not only honors my grandmother and my mother, but also my wife, my teachers and all the women who have helped shape me.

ETR: American Mariachi takes place during the heart of the women’s liberation movement, forcing its characters and audience to call mariachi’s overwhelming masculinity into question. How do you think this is relevant to the political and social climate today?

JCG: American Mariachi is very relevant to the climate across this country. We’re telling a story about these young women who aspire to something better than the world that they’re from—to think bigger and deeper. It’s not just about one person getting ahead, but about them going together. Their unity is their strength.

ETR: Memory plays an important role in this play, and is arguably the impetus for Lucha’s decision to start a mariachi group. How did the theme of memory come about as you were writing? Why is it meaningful to you?

JCG: Music plays an important role in memory by bringing the past into the present. Stacey Lopez, the first woman to major in mariachi at Cal State, Los Angeles, once told me about a gig where she played to a little old lady. When they got to this one song, the little old lady just came alive, and she kept requesting it over and over again. They played that one song over and over for about an hour, and every time she would just light up. That was a seed for me when I began thinking about American Mariachi, trying to understand how music can help memory. My mother is battling dementia now, and I know that when I bring her music, it just sort of awakens her in a really beautiful way.

ETR: Looking at the women in the band, in which character do you see yourself the most?

JCG: I see all aspects of myself in those women. I know what it feels like to be a horrible musician! They’re all me, because I’ve gone through all of their experiences in one way or another, or seen them in my mother. Watching her, a young woman trying to move the world forward while raising a family, deeply affected me. But yes, those elements of myself are there—trying to play an instrument, trying to sing, hoping that it’s going to work but most of the time falling on your face. I always tell my students, “you have to dare to suck.”

ETR: Do you have a favorite song?

JCG: I love a lot of mariachi music—I’m always listening to it. But I would say “La Negra,” which is sort of like the national anthem of mariachi. It’s what they call a “son,” which is a fast-paced, rhythmic type of music that a lot of people would recognize as mariachi. We open with “La Negra,” and it really complements the play. It just goes like gang busters with the rhythm patterns and the counter-rhythm, capturing the soul of mariachi in a really deep and beautiful way. If you play it anywhere you’ll just have audiences throwing gritos—it just comes out of their bodies because that song gets them so fired up.