If you live in Southern California, chances are, you have seen them on stage at the Ford Theatre in Hollywood, at La Plaza de Cultura y Artes in downtown and, prior to the pandemic, daily at Disney California Adventure Park in Anaheim. They’ve also been known to entertain crowds at local restaurants like La Fonda Restaurant in Westlake on its Thursday “Noche de Mariachi Femenino” nights. The artistry of today’s female mariachi groups has even taken them to such prized venues as the White House and as far as Beijing for the Olympics. Their performances have also earned them Grammy Awards and Latin Grammy Awards. They even have their own festival, the annual International Women’s Mariachi Festival, that’s taken place since 2014.
“Los Angeles has historically been the center of innovation, leadership and opportunity for women in mariachi music,” says Leonor Xóchitl Pérez, Ph.D., the executive director of the festival and the Mariachi Women’s Foundation. “During the ’50s and ’60s, all-female groups played at the Million Dollar Theatre downtown. In the ’70s, “mariachi women pioneers Rebecca Gonzales, Laura Sobrino and Monica Treviño were given the opportunity to perform in Los Angeles with the world’s best male mariachis, [Nati Cano’s] Mariachi Los Camperos and Sol de Mexico.” Later, in 1994, Cuban American producer Rodri J. Rodriguez hosted all-female mariachi groups at the Hollywood Bowl’s Mariachi USA Festival for more than 17,000. L.A.’s all-women bands continue to make history with each performance, collaboration, accolade and record. They currently include Mariachi Reyna de Los Angeles, Las Colibrí, Mariachi Divas de Cindy Shea, Mariachi Las Catrinas, Mariachi Lindas Mexicanas and the Mariachi Conservatory All-Female Ensemble — the majority of which are managed and led by the members themselves, versus their counterparts in Mexico, which tend to have male conductors, notes Pérez.
With such mainstream exposure and a growing fan base, today, female mariachis are making significant inroads in the historically male-dominated music genre that originated in Mexico, is influenced by the rhythms and lyrics of African culture, and whose instruments are based on ones that arrived from Europe. It’s all thanks to those who came before them.
The Emergence of the Female Mariachi“The earliest reference to mariachi music is in 1852. Through the writings of a priest, we learned that mariachi music was performed [by men] in rural areas of Mexico. These musicians performed in functions where alcohol was consumed, and they also traveled, which at that time was not an acceptable environment for women. This context created what became a male musical tradition,” recounts Pérez, who grew up in East Los Angeles. She started playing mariachi music in 1973 and became a founding member of female group Mariachi Mujer 2000. “We know of at least one courageous woman, Rosa Quirino, who broke that rule of tradition, and in 1903, as a 13-year-old, joined an all-male mariachi,” she says. “Quirino eventually led her own group and was known to be tough, resilient, and to carry a gun to protect herself and members of her group if she needed to.”
Later in the 20th century, a number of events would draw more women to mariachi in the U.S., starting with the Chicano Movement of the 1960s and “its focus on reclaiming and preserving cultural identity, roots and traditions encouraged youth, particularly college-aged Mexican Americans to listen to and perform mariachi music,” says Pérez. The creation of ethnomusicology departments at colleges during the early ’60s would also see young women taking to the genre without being hindered by the male mariachi tradition. The Bilingual Education Act of 1968 then introduced multilingual and multicultural education, including Latino arts and culture, into elementary and high schools, attracting girls to mariachi without regard for whether they were raised with an appreciation for the genre. “The inception of annual mariachi festivals that started in 1979 in San Antonio, Texas, and included mariachi training workshops,” adds Pérez, “also provided greater opportunities for all — women included.”
Mariachi Music on Their Terms
While today’s female mariachi bands in Los Angeles may be united in their affinity for the music — especially the deep emotion and storytelling that comes with it, and the stringed instruments that originated the sound — how each woman came to be part of the tradition (and forging new ones) is different. “Not all mariachi women are from the same background, ethnically, socially and culturally,” Pérez emphasizes. The genre’s appeal is truly global. Here in the Southland, some were born into Mexican households listening to the music or took mariachi classes as kids, while others are not of Mexican descent and were introduced to the genre as adults.
Some Mexican American women initially resisted mariachi altogether, such as 24-year-old Angelica Mata, a member of the Mariachi Conservatory All-Female Ensemble: “My first sentence was ‘No maliachi.’ I didn’t like mariachi because when I was a kid, whenever I thought of mariachi, I thought, ‘My parents are going to leave me with my grandma and grandpa.’” Her 22-year-old sister, America, and their mom, Esperanza Juarez, are also in the group. They all teach at their family-run Mariachi Conservatory, a community-based music program founded in 2014 by Juarez and husband, Richard Mata, in Boyle Heights. “What transformed my thinking was when I went to go see my parents sing and perform mariachi for the first time as an audience member [when I was 12], not backstage or off to the side. I heard them singing a duet together, and that was the moment I told myself, ‘I need to learn how to play like this. I want to do that when I grow up.’”
The 11-member Mariachi Conservatory All-Female Ensemble ranges in age from 12 to 42, and Pérez was actually the catalyst for starting the ensemble when she inquired if the conservatory had an all-female group that could perform at her festival. “We are a community of young women preserving mariachi, and we have that because of this female ensemble. I don’t really see any other program emphasizing an all-female mariachi ensemble, so it’s a nice safe space,” says Angelica. She plays the guitarrón (bass) in the group, which has performed at the festival each year.
America, a violist in the group and Conservatory teacher concurs: “It’s really beautiful to see these girls starting [in our conservatory] at age eight and seeing them turn into these young women who are really empowering themselves through mariachi music and teaching the next generation,” she says. “As someone who grew up not really seeing many female musicians especially in mariachi, it’s a surreal moment seeing that whole growth.”
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Juarez shares that “there’s always been a huge number of female students, more than boys, participating in mariachi classes, either in the conferences and other educational opportunities. But what happens is there’s a large discrepancy between the women learning how to play an instrument and who get to be in a professional group.” Among the reasons she believes many female mariachi groups emerged are that men did not consider the women as equals in the craft, or existing mariachi male bands may have viewed adding women meant making additional allowances on the road, such as booking separate rooms. “It’s that machismo that sometimes gets in the way of letting a lot of the women that are really, really good musicians be part of those groups. Consequently, there’s been a lot more women who have taken on the leadership role. The female groups are representing themselves differently and very uniquely within each group. None of the female groups are the same; everybody has their own uniqueness.”
The all-string female ensemble Las Colibrí (“The Hummingbirds”), founded in 2009, is one of them, starting with four female musicians (two violins, bass, guitar) and eventually expanding to up to 12: Adding more violins, a vihuela and guitarra de golpe. “From the beginning, we decided not to use a trumpet and revert back to the most traditional mariachi ensemble. Trumpets were not introduced in mariachi until the 1940s,” says founder Susie García, a violinist. “Our vocal abilities and harmonies became more interesting and started to stand out because we weren’t drowned out by the loud horn sound. I think now it is what makes us different from any other female band. It requires a lot of practice and precision to execute the sound that makes us so special.” García has been playing in all-female bands since 1997, starting with Mariachi Adelitas, followed by Mariachi Las Alondras and Mariachi Divas, before forming her own group in 2009. While Las Colibrí chooses the early traditional composition of mariachi instruments, they do not perform in the familiar traje de charro, and instead chose “something more feminine and festive,” letting each member express themselves uniquely: “Each musician wears her own color, which I think adds a nice touch of individuality to the mariachi ensemble.”
Mariachi Divas, founded in 1999 by Cindy Shea, is the most prolific female mariachi band in the country, having just released its 16th album, “Esta Distancia,” recorded during quarantine. Disney made them its official mariachi ensemble 17 years ago, with regular performances in recent years at Disney California Adventure Park and the El Capitan Theatre. With such demanding performing schedules — for Disneyland Resort Entertainment and the touring groups doing music festivals and special events, such as quinceañeras and weddings — Mariachi Divas does not have a set number of members, as the lineup has to be flexible. Shea likens the Divas as an "agency of divas" with members "always on rotation, so nobody ever gets bored." Many of them have played (or play) with other female mariachi bands in the area, and earlier members also formed their own groups.
Before starting Divas, Shea was a member of Mariachi Las Alondras in the late ’90s, which recruited her to play trumpet and where her love for mariachi music deepened. Before that, she was part of salsa musician Yari More’s orchestra at age 18. The orchestra backed such icons as Celia Cruz. Shea is of Italian and Irish heritage but was exposed to many Latin music styles while studying music in Miami and remembers discovering many mariachi musicians were of different or mixed heritages: Mexican, Mexican American, Puerto Rican and Cuban. “And I wanted to celebrate that in Divas. I didn’t want a group that sounded like everybody else,” she shares. “I always thought that everybody’s individuality should be celebrated — instead of closing the door on me like many did because I was a white girl or a gringa — I didn’t want to do that to others. To me, this music was beautiful, and I wanted to showcase the love everyone can have for it and to create new sounds,” which has garnered the group two Grammy Awards and a total of 11 nominations for Best Regional Mexican Music Album (including Tejano).
Toward Strengthening the Female Mariachi MovementPérez estimates there are around 25 all-female mariachi bands in the U.S. She sees this number growing “with more funding in training, programs and services” for girls and women, “and greater understanding of the connections between how the skills developed in mariachi music performance and its rootedness in cultural identity and social/cultural belonging are a catalyst for greater things such as personal, social, economic and professional opportunity.”
The Mata family of the Mariachi Conservatory agrees that funding is of utmost importance, especially in Los Angeles: “Going to mariachi conferences has really given me a different perspective of the L.A. mariachi scene versus Texas, Arizona and New Mexico. We see the difference not only in the level of a mariachi musician compared to someone in Vegas, as a prime example,” shares Angelica. “They have everything they need, including budgets for conferences where they can meet one-on-one with these masters from Mexico. They have that access, while someone from L.A. has to travel and have that expense.” This makes her family even more determined to preserve mariachi’s legacy, especially for young girls: “I see that because we are so passionate, we’re very much resilient when it comes down to mariachi music. So we feel the responsibility of learning from whomever we can and bringing that back to our community.”
Top Image: Las Colibrí at the 57th annual Holiday Celebration at the Music Center | Timothy Norris