Sweet Serenade: Sounds of the Mariachi

In San Antonio, Mariachi Damas de Jalisco set the tone of the town

Nestled in an unassuming office complex off Fredericksburg Road in San Antonio sits a small, simple practice room. Reflecting off its mirrored walls is a group of intimidating women, gathered in a circle of chairs with sheet music propped in front of them. As they warm up with their instruments—a cacophony of violins, a trumpet and guitars—it isn’t their calm demeanors or studious facial expressions that make Mariachi Damas de Jalisco intimidating. It’s the all-female group’s rare brand of unwavering dedication and fortitude, which is shown in its vocal and instrumental prowess to a genre of music that flies relatively quietly under the radar of American pop culture. But here in the Southwest, in San Antonio, and in this practice space, mariachi is only growing stronger … and louder.

New to the ’Stream
To say mariachi is a new or emerging genre is an obvious inaccuracy. It’s here. It’s been here, and with gusto. But its popularity in mainstream, albeit suburban American culture is a relatively recent nuance. To make short wind of a long, storied history, mariachi began as traditional folk music in Mexico in the 19th century. It then gained more countrywide popularity in the 1920s, when musicians performed in busy restaurants and city plazas including Garibaldi Plaza in Mexico City, which still remains as arguably the epicenter of the genre today. Through radio broadcasting and films in the late 1930s to early 1940s, mariachi seeped into Southwest American culture and beyond, blending traditional and modern sounds. Although mariachi groups are most easily found serenading patrons in restaurants and bars, they’re more known in Hispanic culture for performing at concerts, Catholic Mass, on holidays, at funerals, weddings and baptisms.

This past year we’ve seen blips on the pop-culture radar, in television shows including “America’s Got Talent,” in which 10-year-old Sebastian De La Cruz serenaded his way into our hearts; and the documentary “Mariachi High” on PBS, following a year in the life of high school students in Zapata, Texas. But in areas of Southern California, Southwest and Texas, mariachi found its way into schools—teachers are creating mariachi ensembles at the middle-school, high-school and college levels that compete in various competitions, including the prestigious Mariachi Vargas Extravaganza in San Antonio.

Michael Acevedo, director of the Mariachi Ensemble at the University of Texas at San Antonio, fell in love with the genre as a sophomore at Texas A&M Kingsville, after competing with a mariachi group as one of its trumpet players. “After my first competition,” he says, “I just felt like it was in me. I started writing music more, I started listening … I had no idea how much I would fall in love with it. It hit me all at once.” After obtaining a master’s of music in trumpet performance from the University of Texas at Austin, he now teaches what he loves to college students.

Mariachi Vargas Extravaganza is a good example of just how much the industry and the genre itself are growing. The annual eight-day music festival, staged last year at the Lila Cockrell Theatre & Convention Center, brought together high school and university groups and soloists to compete, network and learn from professionals. “It’s a big deal, and it’s just getting bigger,” says Acevedo. “I can say it fueled me even more. We got to see professionals and see mariachi live. It was just incredible, and it’s a battery recharger.”

‘Money in … Money Back’
Back to the formidable Mariachi Damas de Jalisco. College ensembles are exactly how many of the girls met. They recently celebrated seven years as a group, and although members rotate through the years, college ensembles and connections with high school mariachi groups are stepping stones to finding new members. The members range in age from as young as 17 to women in their 30s. All that matters is musical ability, and boy, do they have it in spades.

Resonating off the practice room walls, four violins erupt in shimmery unison to an upbeat tempo set by earthy, acoustic guitars. With syrupy harmonies and a tinny trumpet chirping throughout, the sound is boisterous, orchestral and naturally amplified.

There are two predominate kinds of mariachi, according to Acevedo—the performing group which can incorporate between five to eight violin players, two to three trumpet players, one harp, one guitarron (large, round-backed acoustic bass), one vihuela (similar to ukulele) and an acoustic guitar; and the salon group which is a condensed version of the former with three to five members. “That’s very big here in San Antonio, like when you go down to the River Walk,” he says.

The Damas straddle both, booking gigs wherever they’re asked. The highest paying are live concerts or any events over an hour, according to Sonia Marin, the group’s music director, violin player and booming mid-soprano. And running their group more like a business, with an office administrator and bandleader, proves successful.

“It’s the mariachi world, not the music world,” says Marin. Which means in mariachi, there is little emphasis on recording albums (the live performance takes precedent); an arsenal of well-known or traditional songs is more important than original new ones (to play for hours at a time); and sometimes things get expensive. “We help each other when we have money. We say, ‘OK, this time around I can afford to buy this uniform or these hair pieces or these tights,’ but when the budget doesn’t cover it, ‘OK, you guys have to pay for it out of your own pocket,’” Marin says.

Amanda Martinez, one of the violin players who is also studying for a master’s degree, is pragmatic. “It’s like any other job that we would have. You go to school to learn how to do it, and you get a job and it pays you back. So if you put money in you get money back.” And it’s that kind of matter-of-fact approach to the music they love that brought them successes, including a 10-day military base tour of South Korea, countless concerts and the Houston Stock Show and Rodeo Mariachi Competition, in which they took first place in 2009.

Breaking Barriers
In the male-dominated world of mariachi, all-female groups are not common, but that’s changing, as evidenced by the Damas and other local groups, including Mariachi Las Altenas and Mariachi Las Coronelas. “I feel like we’ve been fortunate,” says Marin. “We’ve had help from some of the top male performers here in San Antonio. … Then you do run across guys who say all you do is dance ... but we don’t pay any attention to that [laughs].”

And that isn’t the only obstacle. Like many mariachis, Damas also performed extensively in restaurants, which can be a wild ride for any group. Keeping gigs can be tough when groups compete for the same restaurant, and, of course, not everyone is as in love with that genre of music as they are. “Some people love mariachi, and some people hate it,” says Alison Garcia, guitar player and singer. “And you’re playing in a restaurant and there’s that one table that’s just staring at you [laughs]. … It depends on the restaurant. A lot of times it can be slow or a lot of times it can be busy. Sometimes you get the waiters that push you out of the way and sometimes you build relationships with them.”

So, suffice it to say these ladies take it all in stride and work hard (in heels), and it shows in the performances. It shows in their faces, lit from within as they serenade crowds and move to the music. It shows in their dedication and musicianship, which is nothing short of well-trained. And it shows in the time-honored tradition of the genre itself—a bubbling wellspring of joyous entertainment.