In the past few years, all-girl bands have been garnering attention, not to mention awards and dinero for their hit albums. But female mariachis? You might not have seen una banda de mujeres mariachis at your cousin's wedding, but expect to see one soon. True, all-female mariachis groups have traditionally been considered a rarity--even though coed mariachi ensembles have maintained a steady presence on the festival and local level--but this is beginning to change. Whether performing in nightclubs or headlining in concert halls, all-female mariachis are becoming a fixture in the male-dominated mariachi industry.
Mexico has a rich history of all-female mariachi groups. Perhaps the earliest was Las Coronelas, founded by Carlota Noriega in the mid-1940s. In the 1950s, Adelita Chavez founded Las Adelitas. The 1960s produced the very famous Estrellas de Mexico, led by Lupita Morales. In the 1980s, the most popular female mariachi in Mexico was Mariachi Femenil Xochitl, led by Ramona Madera.
According to Jonathan Clark, a mariachi historian and the director of the mariachi workshop at San Jose University in California, one of the earliest all-female mariachi bands in the United States was Mariachi Estrella de Topeka. They began as a church group in the late seventies and had been playing professionally for a year when four of their members perished in the 1981 Hyatt Regency disaster of Kansas City, Kansas, when lobby structures collapsed. Mariachi Estrella still plays locally and has been coed since the tragedy.
So why has it taken women mariachis so long to become recognized? Ironically, part of the blame falls on the music itself. Most women have performed with mariachis only as vocalists, such as Linda Ronstadt and Mexican legends Lucha Villa and Lola Beltran. Laura Garciacano Sobrino, a former member of the group Reyna de Los Angeles, and a mariachi teacher for more than 20 years, says that forming a female mariachi used to be difficult because there weren't enough women interested in mastering all of the instruments. But a true mariachi plays an instrument, and those of the trade are guitars, trumpets, violins, vihuela (small guitars), and guitarrones (large six-string versions of the vihuela). "They all wanted to play the violin," says Sobrino, "but now women play all the instruments, even the trumpet."
Critics argue that mariachis femeniles commonly display less strength, especially in the trumpet. "Right now most can't compete seriously with males," says Clark. "A lot of male groups are concerned about the competition, but in all honesty, the female groups sound weak." He cites Reyna as an exception to the rule.
Cindy Reifler, the assistant director of the group Reyna, recalls a "compliment" given to the group from a member of the legendary male mariachi band, Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlan. "I can't tell you're women until you start singing," he said, "You sound like real mariachis." Reifler, a mariachi for 14 years, knew what he meant. She jokes: "I like to say we play with ovaries."
Machismo has also discouraged women from starting careers as professional mariachis. Why? Male mariachis have a reputation for drinking, loving, and then disappearing. A "proper" Mexican woman doesn't marry a mariachi, much less become one.
Another prejudice is that many women don't have the dedication to keep a group together. "Just when they get the group sounding good, the members get married and quit," says Clark. As with any job, this can happen, but female mariachis also take their careers very seriously. "Most committed mariachi women take maternity leave and go back to work," says Sobrino, who is now expecting her third child in January. "It's their job."
Still, industry experts don't take many mariachi mujeres seriously, "Most of the girls performing are considered more of a show than anything else," says Sobrino. Mariachi veterano Rebecca Gonzales, who has been a member of both female and coed mariachis, agrees but points out the advantage of all-women troupes. "I think people enjoy seeing women perform," she says, "It's something new and unique."
Of the handful of mariachis femeniles, there are two group performing side-by-side with male mariachis in the professional festivals--Las Perlitas Tapatias and Reyna de Los Angeles. These two mariachi troupes have performed in all the major mariachi festivals in the United States, including California, New Mexico, and Texas, where the first U.S. mariachi festival took place in San Antonio in 1979. This year, the California-based Reyna de Los Angeles will even perform in the festival of all mariachi festivals, El Encuentro Internacional del Mariachi, in Guadalajara, the hometown of mariachi music.
Currently, Las Perlitas Tapatias is Mexico's best know mariachi femenil. Founded in 1989 by Alma Rocio Corona, the 13-member group is a popular attraction at mariachi festivals, where its high-energy delivery includes playful cumbia, mambo, and merengue departures from the traditional show.
When performing, female mariachis wear a skirted version of the traditional traje de charro, which is the riding suit worn by the Mexican horseman. Some female groups prefer brighter trajes in pastel colors, but traditionalists don't agree. "I wouldn't be caught dead in a pink suit," says Barbara Perez Diaz, one of the Silicon Valley's mariachi with more than 20 years of experience, "I'm happy with black."
One show-stopping highlight of Las Perlitas' show is a variety number where the lights dim and the members whip off their snug traje skirts to perform in tight leggings. Scandalized audience members have often failed to see a link between leggings and mariachi. But founder Corona claims their style of entertainment is done en una forma correcto, adding: "El traje de charro se debe de respetar."
Corona says that their music is more appreciated in the United States, because of all the machismo in Mexico. Sobrino recalls her own experiences: "Women mariachis never received the same acclaim in Mexico as they did in the U.S.," she says, "Here we've had women tell us 'right on!' and 'great job' One woman even asked me if I would teach her granddaughter."
Although professional female mariachis are still scarce, Sobrino claims that female student groups are growing rapidly. Many young mariachis femeniles, such as the group Las Altenitas taught by Sobrino in the San Fernando Valley, are performing on a local level. "In 10 or 15 years we'll have taken mariachi music to its next step," says Sobrino. Just like the on-going emergence of successful women in sport, entertainment, board rooms, medical offices, and academia across the country, the emergence of female mariachis must be a sign of the times.
I have had the wonderful experience to know many of the women mentioned in this article. As a matter of fact, my mariachi teacher for many years, Laura Sobrino, I consider a good friend. Laura was the person who taught me how to play violin, at the grand age of 30. It has been through her encouragement that I have continued playing mariachi.
Through my mariachi conference travelings, I have also met Barbara Perez Diaz, another good friend. She has the unique pleasure of actually creating a Mariachi Dynasty. Her two children, Carla and Juan are both accomplished mariachi musicians, joining in the mariachi legacy with their mariachi mom, and dad, "El Pato" (Mariachi Azteca).
So as you can see, all-women mariachi groups are not a new thing, in Mexico or in the United States, in fact, I'm sure we will see more of them, as well as more and more female mariachis joining coed mariachi groups.
More on women in Mariachi
Article - Mujeres Mariachis: Y ahora, ¿Quién es "El rey"?
Article - Mariachi Queen, Laura Sobrino