Nueva Mariachi: a long-time tradition is changing

Once solely the dominion of men, the tradition of mariachi is changing as a new wave of female performers step up, thrill audiences and make the genre their own. 

Nueva Mariachi: a long-time tradition is changing

Photography by Matt Conant

The word “mariachi” typically conjures images of barrel-chested men strumming oversized guitars while decked out in embroidered black suits and sombreros. For 300 years, this musical form, which emerged from western Mexico, has essentially been a men-only affair, but that tradition is changing, especially in America’s southwest.

“Texas is the leader with the most women at the forefront of this genre,” says Rodri Rodriguez, founder and producer of the Mariachi USA festival. “When I started this in 1990, there was not one single female group in the United States or Mexico.” In Texas, particularly around San Antonio, women are finding their place. Local retail shop The Mariachi Connection still sells more men’s suits overall, but according to owner Josie G. Benavidez, girls often outnumber boys in school programs. It’s led to a surge of new talent. “Before you’d have a girl in the band to sing a couple of women’s songs, but now girls can play all the instruments and form all-female groups,” says Benavidez. With the Mariachi USA festival running this month in Austin, Texas, we meet some of the women who are bringing their own twist to the storied genre.

The Cover Artist: Alina Lozano

When asked about her favorite mariachis, 25-year-old Alina Lozano is quick to name José Alfredo Jiménez. The Mexican legend wrote hundreds of songs, including classics like “El Rey,” but nothing akin to the covers of vintage video game music Lozano performs with the group Mariachi Entertainment System.

Born in Nuevo León, Mexico, Lozano immigrated to Laredo, Texas, at age 6, where she studied flute and vihuela, then moved to San Antonio to attend college. Now a graduate with a music degree, she works full-time as a mariachi, performing standards with the group Mariachi Azul de San Antonio, but she’s better known for Mariachi Entertainment System. Their versions of tunes from The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past and Mega Man 2 has over 100,000 views on YouTube.

“It’s so cool to see how well the music translates to mariachi,” she says. “We’ve had people say that if they didn’t know it was video game music, they wouldn’t be able to tell.” Mariachi Entertainment System’s video game covers hit a sweet spot for Gen-Xers, but the group also strikes a chord with Baby Boomers with their version of “Hopelessly Devoted to You” from Grease, on which Lozano sings the lead.

As for the challenges female mariachis face, Lozano has noticed that when playing in mixed-gender groups she feels like she has more to prove. “Some of these guys have been playing for 30 years, so I’m not saying I’m on their level, but as a girl I have to try twice as hard to be taken seriously. It’s a motivator. I have to live this music.”

The Godmother: Belle Ortiz

Among Texas mariachis, Belle Ortiz is a star. Now in her 80s, she began teaching her first high school mariachi class in 1970. Back then, the genre was associated with bars—not exactly children’s music—so convincing schools to include it as an academic subject was a tricky proposition.

“It’s been a hellacious career for me, and I call it that with all due respect,” says Ortiz. “Sometimes, I felt like they were throwing mud at me, because people didn’t realize that mariachi music is not cantina music.”

These days, in part because of Ortiz’s refusal to accept defeat, mariachi is a common option in school curriculums and recognized in University Interscholastic League competitions. She has also helped to do away with the idea that mariachi is a male-only pursuit.

“Like that quote about Ginger Rogers, we females can do anything that males can do and in heels,” she says. “We wanted to prove it. It’s not that we want to say women are better mariachis, but we’re equal.”

Although she’s retired from full-time teaching, even a casual conversation with Ortiz quickly turns into a music history lesson. She also serves as a mariachi ambassador, traveling as far as Japan to spread the word. Ortiz’s main instrument is the piano, she says, but she can “carry” the violin and guitar, a term she uses to distinguish between journeymen and those who can truly “play.” She adds, however, that technical prowess isn’t the only key to mariachi success. “If you’re not passionate, honey, you belong somewhere else.”

The Young Guns: Mariachi Corazón de San Antonio

To find the next generation of mariachis, look no further than Mariachi Corazón de San Antonio. Formed in 2012, Corazón is a supergroup comprised of the best high school-age performers from around the city. Every year, students audition at an event in the city’s historic Main Plaza for one of 14 spots in the ensemble, then attend bi-weekly classes with director Rachel Cruz and perform at festivals around the city. In addition to receiving tutelage from a professor so experienced she penned a curriculum guide for teachers, students receive a $1,000 college scholarship for each year in the program (and an extra $1,000 if they make it all four years). The program requires students maintain a 3.0 GPA. The incentive seems to work—the program boasts a 100 percent matriculation rate. Majoring in music isn’t a requirement, but many students have gone on to start professional groups like Mariachi Alma de Mexico.

“The goal is to create a boomerang effect,” says Cruz. “The students will go to college, come back and give back to the community.”

Currently, the group is comprised of nine girls and five boys, a sign of the shifting demographics of the genre. They strike a stunning scene performing live in an arched formation outside San Fernando Cathedral, huge smiles illuminating luxurious green trajes and white sombreros. Singers step forward to take solos including Stephanie Jimenez, a 16-year-old violin player and vocalist who attends John Jay Science and Engineering Academy. She fell in love with instrumental music after attending the symphony in third grade, picked up the guitar in sixth grade and began violin in high school. She hopes to study medicine in college, but doesn’t plan to stop playing mariachi music anytime soon.

“I love the way that music can change people’s emotions. A sad song can make people want to cry, or a fast song will make them want to dance,” she says.

The Harpist: Linda Hart-Garrahan

It’s not only Linda Hart-Garrahan’s gender that distinguishes her from the average mariachi. There’s her Norwegian heritage, for a start, and the fact that she plays a 37-string harp.

The instrument was a traditional part of Mexican music dating back to the 1700s, but the expense, size and difficulty make it rare for mariachi groups to include a harp player these days. That all makes Hart-Garrahan’s talents quite coveted. “It just adds that extra adornment,” she says.

The world of mariachi took note of Hart-Garrahan when a Facebook video of her playing with Mariachi y Coro de Colores, who perform a weekly mass at Mission San José, caught the ear of one of the directors of Mariachi Guerrera Quetzalli. She was invited to join the group, and now her red-painted fingernails pluck the strings to create beautiful reverberations.

Watching Hart-Garrahan, you wouldn’t know that she still considers herself a novice. She began harp lessons in 2012, but her studies were nearly derailed when she was diagnosed with Hodgkin Lymphoma later that year. Aggressive chemotherapy and a bone marrow transplant kept her bedridden in the hospital, giving her plenty of time to practice.

“If I didn’t have the harp, I don’t know if I would’ve made it through,” she says. “When I wanted to quit, my teacher would say, ‘No, you have to practice.’ Instead of feeling sorry for myself, I stressed out about learning harp.”

Returning to normal life after cancer is tough enough—most people wouldn’t strive to get on stage. But Hart-Garrahan’s fellow mariachis took her under their wing, teaching her to look and play the part with style.

“I thought I wouldn’t be ready,” she says. “I didn’t have any hair, eyebrows or eyelashes. They said, ‘Perfect, we’ll teach you to draw your eyebrows on, and there’s this thing called a wig. You’re going to rock it.’”

Now with her cancer in remission, she plays in three groups, including the all-female Mariachi Guerrera Quetzalli, which translates to “beautiful warrior woman.” No matter the occasion, she’s grateful for the opportunity to perform. “I try to bring joy to others by giving back this beautiful gift that was given to me,” she says.