The Folklorist Next-door: Becoming an Honorary Mariachi
Becoming an Honorary Mariachi was released Feb 3, 2023, as Episode 9 of Texas Folklife's Podcast Series The Folklorist Next-door.
Read g'beda's blog post
Becoming an Honorary Mariachi
g'beda: Imagine being young, gifted, and Black.
Growing up in a small, Midwestern rural town.
You fall in love with the type of music you've never heard. You grow up. Then life takes you to the borderland of El Paso, Juarez and Santa Teresa, where the very music you love is played and taught. I'm g'beda, a Texas Folklife fellow, and this is my story becoming an honorary mariachi.
Sometimes you wanna share a story you're not ready to tell. This project began as a narrative about living out a high school dream, becoming a mariachi. The plan was to find guitarron, learn how to play it, and join a mariachi band, then tell you all about it. More than the journey was the experience of stepping into a new community.
This story is about how others make you their own.
It wasn't like yesterday, but I remember it. I was sitting in Miss Kimberly Spanish class. She put on a record. It was a bolero.
During the pandemic, I reflected on unfulfilled parts of myself. There were things I still wanted to do in my life. I was open to live it fuller. I moved to the gateway, the borderland of El Paso. I've spent the last four months learning the guitarrón. It's the bajo, or bass you hear in mariachi music.
It was time for my first mariachi performance. The day my teacher presented me with my moño, the bow worn by mariachi's. Something changed.
Next I had to shop for my traje, the suit worn, or the outfit worn to match the mariachi ensemble. When I got dressed, I could feel another shift. I was suiting up to become a part of something special. I was suiting up to share and represent Mariachi music.
For me, this was a rite of passage. I became more interested in the origin story of other mariachis. I want to introduce you to three: Juan David Martinez, Genesis Staple, and Valerie Torres. Juan David Martinez is a mariachi and the owner of Strings and Things Music Store.
I found Strings and Things while lost in East El Paso. One of the store's window signs said Mariachi Instruments. It grabbed my attention. I had to see what was inside and meet the owner.
I walked around the store until Juan David was free to talk. He was speaking with a customer. I continued to browse. The store carries everything musically, mariachi: violins, vihuelas, requintos, harps, trumpets, and guitarrones.
Juan: My name is Juan David Martinez. I'm a business owner and a musician. Um, a little under 20 years ago, I started Strings and Things music. We began as a, uh, music school. We were called Vivace Music Academy. And unfortunately, the, um, landlord, uh, raised the rent quite a bit.
So we had to start looking for another means, and we became a music shop instead. And I catered to, uh, folk musicians, which a lot of music stores did not - particularly the Mariachis were very supportive of us, and we started carrying accessories and instruments for them and became known as a, a bit of, um, a mariachi store. And, uh, here we are 20 years later still in business.
Mariachi is an all-encompassing, growing type genre that absorbs local styles and styles from other countries. So I guess they started with Mexico first, right? The local styles, and then they started absorbing from other countries as music, you know, got around more, especially recordings, let's say like the huapango was not always played in mariachi music.
Now it's considered classic mariachi. That came from a certain region of Mexico and was absorbed into the mariachi genre. I was eating at this restaurant and there were trios everywhere, walking in the restaurant in with mariachi suits and the requinto guitar. And I thought to myself, there's not one of these in El Paso.
And when I got back to El Paso, I got to work on starting one. And it's been a great success the last 12 years for me. And recently I've, uh, decided to branch off and to the harp. And I'm exploring the harp currently, and what its possibilities are with mariachi music, with, uh, Latin music in general. Cumbias, for instance. You don't hear a lot of hard players playing cumbias, hardly. Definitely not in El Paso. You don't have that.
Mariachi music. What does it mean to me? Oh gosh, it means a lot. Family history, self-expression, just community.
g'beda: Juan David introduced me to someone who shared my musical interest. Genesis Staple. Her father stopped by strings and things to get her gift for her 18th birthday. While there, he showed Juan David a video. It was Genesis singing a mariachi song in a concert. She was backed by her high school Mariachi ensemble.
Juan David passed on my number and her family contacted me. The day I was called was Genesis' surprise birthday party. I got invited. We had a lot in common. She was Black like me, living my high school mariachi dream.
Genesis: Hi, um, my name is Genesis Staple. I'm from El Paso, Texas. I recently moved to Austin, Texas. I'm an undergrad at UT Austin with a major in vocal performance.
The ensemble that I played with, their name is Mariachi Estrella del Oeste, at Franklin High School, so Mariachi Star of the West. They were a really fun group to play with, and this was the school's first year even having a mariachi program. So it was really interesting.
I started getting interested in mariachi music kind of like towards the beginning of my senior year. It was something that was kind of new to me and I honestly didn't realize that the genre of music that I like listening to was even referred to as mariachi music. What kind of got me hooked was through my teacher because they needed a guitarrón player.
g'beda: How long did it take you to get comfortable with the instrument?
Genesis: It took me about a week. I practiced every day for like two, three hours. And because I do play cello and guitar, it was easy for me to be able to shift between chords and remember the names of the strings, cuz they're the same string names for the cello, but the hand positions are like on the guitar.
g'beda: Tell me about the first time you performed and what that felt like.
Genesis: Like really nervous because it was the first time that I had ever sang in front of a crowd and I was singing in another language. Something that I, I wouldn't say that I'm not comfortable with. It's just to present it to a whole bunch of people that actually speak that language. I was just worried if I would be singing my phrases correctly and like saying the right words and that I convey the meaning and convey that I understand what I'm saying, being able to perform for my parents and that they're able to experience something like that because they've always wanted me to be able to sing in front of people, and I've always had a fear of doing that.
g'beda: Genesis's dreams crossed paths with mine.
Valerie Torres is an elementary school teacher, a Mariachi and the instructor for El Paso Community College's Mariachi Valleverde. I met up with Valerie Torres at Album Park. It's next to Gary Del Palacio Rec Center. The center is where the senior mariachi class takes place. I wanted to hear her perspectives on the history of mariachi.
Valerie: My first experience with mariachi music would be, as many Mexican Americans would be in the household. You know, your parents grandparents playing the music loud on Saturday morning, but I never really took notice of it until I joined the high school mariachi. And then that's when I was starting to recognize as we were learning the songs, I would recognize the songs. My main instrument would be the violin. In high school, I started to learn how to play guitar a little bit more from the guitar. It's very easy to transition to the vihuela, which is the five string instrument. And after high school, we are in desperate need of a guitarrón player.
I tried my hand at it. I learned the basics just enough for our group to get by. Everybody follows the guitarrón. The violins may start this, the song, but the guitarrón tells the harmonía to come in. It sets the pace, it sets the rhythm, the tempo. Very unique instrument. It may be a bass instrument, but no other country has a guitarrón. That is a very, um, unique and special instrument to Mexico.
Women were not allowed in mariachi. As a musician, there are some cases, some where no matter how good you are, you'll never play with an all male group. It's an all male group. It'll, they might have you as a guest, they might invite you to play, but you will never be a part. And it's just how it is. And that's why there are, there are all female groups. There are all male groups and there are co-ed groups. And you gotta just find the one that you fit into.
I personally have not felt any pushback as a female within the Mariachi community, but there are lots of groups who have made great strides. Mariachi Mujer 2000, Mariachi Divas. Even here in El Paso, there are all female groups and there are some amazing female musicians. But it has evolved and it has progressed.
It's not the most perfect community, but it's a very strong community and it's a very. Connected. We're very connected and one way or another, we know someone who knows someone who knows someone else, all the way from Tucson to Phoenix to Nogales, even the mariachis in Juarez, like they come over, we play. We need this person, we need this instrument.
I would encourage anybody that if you were trying to start in mariachi or you got, you graduated from your high school mariachi and you tried joining a group and it doesn't work out, don't just give up. Go look for another group. Put yourself out there. Visit music stores. Ask um, musicians that you know, if they know any groups. Look on Facebook. Get out there cuz there is a group that will work for you.
Everybody get remembers their first moño. Yeah, mine was the buy. It was, uh, royal blue with silver embroidery. They can represent everything St. Patrick's Day, the LGBTQ community, uh, there's some that are, have the Mexican flag on them. The United States flag on them. They really are. They just represent whatever the group is trying to show.
The ones that I picked, I was trying to go for red embroidered for our senior adult group. I couldn't find any, and red is just traditional. However, when I was looking for the material, I saw that light beige with gold foil and I thought, well, this is like their golden years. So I wanted to kind of show that with that moño.
There was, even during the pandemic, there was a lot of groups who would get their masks to match their moñas. And it was even embroidered the same way so that they could still perform while looking professional. Mariachi Vargas just came out, I remember you went to the Ay Amor concert and they had just come out with a new CD. So even the top top groups in Mexico are coming out with CDs and more music and it's more contemporary.
They add more harp or they add more saxophone. They, you know, they play with Symphony orchestra. Or they'll change the language that they sing in. Mariachi music is for everyone. It's for – to welcome anyone and I'm glad that you felt that welcome and that you are enjoying it. I'm glad
g'beda: My journey became about the people I met. Juan David showed me the care he had for his customers and the instruments and that care extended to the repairs he does. He shared his reverence for mariachi music and the culture. Genesis inspired me to continue. She exemplified stepping outside of fear and reminded me to take the risk to belong.
Valerie welcomed me into the class. She took me where I was as a student and taught me the role of the guitarron. I have deep gratitude for the senior mariachi group who opened their hearts to me.
Sometimes a dream catches up to you.
Listen to the Folklorist next-door
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This episode was hosted and produced by g'beda Tonya Lyles, a 2022 Community Folklife Fellow.
The Folklorist Next-door is brought to you by Texas Folklife. Our technical producer is J.A. Strub. Our executive producer is Jeannelle Ramirez.
You can learn more about the fellows and their projects at texasfolklife.org. This project is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.