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UCLA

The Magic of Mariachi

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By Letisia Marquez '94

Published Oct 1, 2013 8:00 AM


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Photo by: Ann Summa

Masters of Mariachi

In 1989, Steve Loza M.A. ’79, Ph.D. ’85, UCLA ethnomusicology professor, recruited Nati Cano, founder of Mariachi Los Camperos, and Juan Manuel Cortez, who was the musical director of Mariachi Uclatlán, to teach the “Music of Mexico” class. Jesus “Chuy” Guzman, the musical director of Los Camperos, took over as instructor in 2000. Los Camperos had earned a reputation as one of the United States’ best mariachi.

Sergio Alonso ’99 recalled that when growing up in the San Fernando Valley, he took no interest in performing mariachi music at family parties. But Cano’s class inspired him to embrace it — and changed his career path. Alonso performed for the student group, Mariachi UCLA, and played occasional gigs with Los Camperos.

Alonso played the trumpet but Guzman, who continues to teach at UCLA, asked him if he could play harp on Los Camperos’ tour. “My mother almost killed me for that,” chuckles Alonso, who was a physiological science major and was thinking about going to medical school. “But it was the best move I could ever make.”

Spreading the Sound

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Photo by: Ann Summa

Lauryn Salazar M.A. ’04, Ph.D. ’11, who has conducted research on early mariachi history in California, said the rise of mariachi music will continue, particularly among Mexican-American youth who are reaping the rewards of playing a music that reflects their culture.

“Learning to play mariachi music requires learning an instrument, which requires quite a bit of discipline,” says Salazar, now an assistant professor of musicology at Texas Tech University. “It’s a team effort in which many musicians must work together, which develops teamwork and communication skills.”

Salazar’s research reveals that many of the students who are in mariachi programs succeed in school and attend such prestigious colleges as UCLA, MIT and Stanford. Many of the programs are located in largely Latino school districts that are battling low academic success.

And a new generation is changing the face of the genre. Once limited to mostly males, contemporary mariachi features all-women and coed groups.

Leticia Soto, who helped launch Mariachi de Uclatlán in 2006, has written her doctoral dissertation on women in mariachi and the uphill battles they face. When she started playing mariachi music at San Fernando Junior High School in the 1990s, her mother was mortified.

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Photo by: Ann Summa

Like many Mexicans, Soto’s mom, she says, thought “mariachi is for men, the musicians are always drunk, they always play in bars, they can’t read or write, and the list goes on. But my mom’s negative idea about mariachi music changed when she saw a bunch of seventh- and eighth-graders playing the music.”

In 2012, Soto was hired as the director of the Mariachi Ollin Yoliztli School in the famed Plaza Garibaldi. It is the first Mexican school to offer a technical degree in the music. Soto explains that after UNESCO recognized mariachi as an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, Mexico City officials decided to open the school in an effort to formalize the music.

“When I was first announced as the director of the school, one astonished reporter said, ‘How is the director of a school that teaches music that is associated with machismo a woman?’ ” she says. “Mariachi is not just for men, and if I was selected to lead this project, it’s because someone saw qualifications in me and not my gender.”

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