Laura Sobrino will not allow herself to be late. Too many kids at an East Los Angeles music school are depending on her master violin lessons. So, from behind the wheel of her Dodge Caravan, she zigzags across three lanes of traffic and eases onto another freeway interchange, clocking 72 m.p.h.
That's the way of El Mariachi-or in her case-La Mujer Mariachi.
As director of the country's firsl all-female professional show group, Mariachi Reyna de Los Angeles, Sobrino is proving that women can be a vital force in a profession dominated by hombres.
She and her dozen musicians are on the fast track, attracting huge audiences and getting standing ovations everywhere they perform, from the Orange County Fair to the Hollywood Bowl's Mariachi U.S.A. Festival.
Invitations from across the country are pouring in. The women-with help from their founder, Jose Hernandez, leader of hiw own group, Mariachi Sol de Mexico-have laid down five tracks for an album. A record comp;any is hot to sign them. And a Spanish-language television station is wooing Sobrino to co-host a weekly Mexican music fest.
All this attention for a woman who never wanted to play violin in the first place. Her heart was set on the clarinet. But her mother won out and unknowingly set Sobrino on the road to making mariachi music history.
Sobrino admits that being a Latina in a macho mariachi mundo is exactly what propels her to push harder, talk faster, stay a step ahead, stand tough, and on occasion-as on this particular day-drive like the dickens.
She and husband, Dan, a pianist and guitarist, have two, thank you.
But with an ethnomusicology degree from UC Santa Cruz, a master teacher certification from the National Endowment for the Arts, a job giving mariachi lessons for the Mariachi Heritage Society, a home-based business called Mariachi Publishing Co., and spot playing with her husband's group, Mariachi Universal, Sobrino is not about to be told, "No, senora."
Known by all as maestro, Hernandez is the man behind the Reynas, which means queens. He founded the group less than two years ago after his troupe shared the stage with Mariachi Las Perlitas Tapatias from Guadalajara, Mexico's only all-female show group.
Enter Laura Sobrino, a statuesque 6-foot-1inch, brown-eyed, dark-haired, take-charge beauty- a dead ringer for Lynda Carter's Wonder Woman.
"I called Laura and told her about my concept. I knew there were enough female musicians to do it," recalls Hernandez, who relied on Sobrino to contact women and audition them. The group has seven violins, two trumpets, a harp, aan acoustic guitar, a guitarron (a portable acoustic bass, indigenous to Mexico) and a vihuela, a small rhythm acoustic guitar. And everyone sings.
He also wanted his friend, whom he met when both played with Mariachi Los Galleros de Pedro Rey, to act as conductor.
"She is aggressive. She was always around men players. She is the oldest, is responsible and it is her nature to be a caring person. I didn't have any second thoughts about anybody else but her to be the chief. She takes charge."
With his behind-the-scenes creative work writing the musical arrangements for the group and Sobrino in control, Hernandez says he knew the women-several of whom live out of town-would take mariachi by its strings and play with ganas, or determination.
"With Laura there, these girls have made my musical dreams come true. They sound like angels."
In a short time, they have earned the respect of their male peers, Hernandez says. "I didn't want guys to say, 'They play like girls.' Now the guys from other groups come up to me and say they can't get over how these girls sound. They go, 'If you close your eyes they sound just like guys'".
Talk like that pleases Sobrino. Her eyes, green this day because of contacts she uses when performing, sparkle like emeralds.
Conversation about music-and its power, passion and poetry-reminds her of a childhood in Watsonville, in the Salinas Valley, where music always filled the house in which her parents still reside.
A favorite uncle gave her an accordion. But it was way too heavy for her to hold. Still, she held onto the dream of one day playing an instrument.
At age 8, Laura came home from school with a permission slip to take a music class. When she told her mother she wanted to play the clarinet like all her friends, her mother refused to sign. "She said, 'No way, mija [my daughter]. You're going to play the violin. And the day you play 'Ave Maria' for me, well, if you don't like the violin after that, you can play whatever you want.'"
The day that she picked up the violin "I knew it was over. I knew there was no other instrument for me."
Five years ago, Sobrino's 32-year-old promise was fulfilled on a Thanksgiving Day. "After the turkey, I said, 'Mom, I made you a promise a long time ago that I never kept and I want to keep it now.'"
With Dan at the piano and Laura on the violin, the two played "Ave Maria." There wasn't a dry eye in the house. "Mom" Sobrino recalls telling her mother, her voice choked with emotion, "I love you and I love the violin."
Eleanor Pierce, Laura's first music teacher, a kind but stern woman, must have sensed Laura's love for the violin. Pierce gave her daily lessons after school up through the eighth grade, delivering the student to her parents' front door after every session, something she did only for Laura.
"She gave me her heart and taught me how to love music," Sobrino says.
Pierce also was the first person to tell Sobrino that she was college material. "She said, 'You have enough talent, I know I can get you a scholarship.' So in my mind I was going to college to become a music teacher just like her." But during her first year of college at UC Santa Cruz, Sobrino discovered a part of her that had nothing to do with being a clasically trained violinist. It had to do with her identitiy as a Mexican American during the height of the Chicano movimiento . Chicano students around her spoke Spanish, a language she dind't know. As a high-schooler in Watsonville she and brother Mario had been in the minority, surrounded by surfer types.
She could never understand, Sobrino says, ". . .why I was so different from everybody else or why I was never invited to parties, why I always felt this barrier."
At first, she thought it was because she was so tall. "Later on, I realized why: because I was Mexican. And I dind't even know what Mexican meant."
She put college on hold, wrote to her father's relatives in his native Mexico City, and began a journey of discovering her roots, her culture, herself.
Along the way, she also discovered musica ranchera , popular Mexican music. During a visit from her parents, Alfonso and Jovita, she took them to Garibaldo Plaza, a world-famous mariachis square in Mexico City where they were serenaded. Unknowingly, the mariachi seed had been planted.
After a year in Mexico City, Sobrino returned to UC Santa Cruz. She missed Mexico and began studying Mexican music including mariachi, which became her specialty to fill the void. She soon joined a student show group.
For her parents and for Pierce, whom Sobrino had not seen since the eighth grade, she performed a senior project of Huasteca, or Huastec Indian music, that relies heavily on the violin; Norteno, a type of music played on the accordion, and Jarocho, a Vera Cruz style that showcases the harp.
She presented Pierce with a dozen roses. "Next to my parents I wanted to give special thanks to her."
But playing with the campus group didn't stisfy Sobrino's musical appetite for mariachi. She had hoped "to become complete" as a mariachi after researching her senior thesis on the mariachi violin style. In 1978 while in Los Angeles to work on her paper, she was hired by Mariachi Uclatlan, a UCLA student group that had just turned professional.
The plan was to stay on for three months, enough time to finish the report. But htree months turned into three years of playing with other groups, including Los Galleros, "where I really came to understand the mariachi style."
"Oh my God, I understand it now!", she blurted out. "Everybody started laughing at me. I went, 'Uh-oh!', and, of course, everybody heard that, too."
As soon as she left the stage, Sobrino began scribbling down her feelings: Mariachiwas about connecting with her culture, about never letting go of tradition, about singing the words of unrequited love not just with her voice but with the sweet string of her violin.
Back then-and later as the only woman performing with Hernandez's own Mariachi Sol de Mexico, long considered Southern California's premier group-she played six nights a week, usually getting home at 3 a.m. She would sleep for three hours, wake up at 6 a.m. to make a sound check for gigs all day Saturday that usually went until 2 a.m. Sunday. Then there was Sunday Mass to perform at, followed by a brunch at a private party.
And she had to know at least 200 songs.
"The leader of the group would say, 'Now let me see if you can play this tune in first violin. Now play it in second violin. Now third violin.' I soon learned that mariachis have to be able to adapt."
Everybody thought she was crazy to play in bars till 2 am, stroll in restaurants, appear at weddings, funerals, baptisms, birthdays and stand outside strangers's windows at the crack of dawn on Mother's Day. Once she palyed for two hours for a man who wanted to win back his ex-girlfriend who had her new boyfriend in the house and an angry mother standing in the living room while she tried to decide which man to keep. She returned to her ex.
"Maybe it just depends on your survival nature," Sobrino says about the stamina that has pulled her through some tough times.
At 17, Sobrino underwent a thyroidectomy after enduring three years of what she calls "hyper-hyper-hyperthyroidism," a rare condition for a teen-ager. She lost most of her hair and a life-threatening amount of weight before doctors operated. For three days she remain in intensive care. "They didn't know if I was going to survive."
Then, tow years ago at age 38, a prenant Sobrino was told she had a malignant melanoma.
"Thank God I didn't really know what a melanoma was because I think I would have freaked out," she says. After surgery, she is cancer-free.
Reflecting on her illnesses, Sobrino says, "I'm just lucky. A lot of people aren't that lucky." She pauses. "Maybe, my love for playing music is what saved me. I know I've survived for a reason. Maybe I'm here to help pave the way for others."
"She has inspred me to keep working at it no matter what some people, especially what some men might think about us, like they are better and that we shouldn't be in this profession," says trumpeter Griselda Burruel, 20, of Tuscon. "She tells us to keep our dream alive. She has passion. She's a companera [friend]."
Esperanza Donlucas, also a 20-year-old trumpeter from Los Angeles, says she admires Sobrino's ability to teach both discipline and unity partly through the prayer circle she convenes before each performance.
"She makes our worries go away, our egos go away. She is the leader, but in her prayer she says, 'We are just one group, all united.' I always tell her that everything she is comes from her smile. She motivates me just by her smile. She's a companera."
As the groups only Anglo member, violinist Cindy Reifler, 35, of Santa Cruz, has earned the nickname La Guera, or the blond one. Sobrino taught Reifler her first song, "El Son de La Negra."
"I have nothing but respetos para Laura . Hers is not an easy job to do, dealing with 13 personalities, many of them young and green even though they are gifted. And she has to keep a certain distance from everybody to be able to stay in control."
And again, comes the seal of approval: "She's a companera."
To the group's youngest member, including 15-year-old Celia Leyva, an 11th-grader at Long Beach Polytechnic High School, Sobrino is simply a role model.
"I admire her because she is a girl mariachi," says Celia, a violinist who started playing at age 3 and took lessons from Sobrino at the Los Angeles Music and Arts School. "Laura has made it one step easier for all women to break into the field."
For certain, doors are opening-though slowly-for other women because of the Reynas' influence.
Recently, Sobrino received a call from a San Fernando Valley high school that formed an all-female group. More young girls are signing up for Mariachi Heritage Society lessons. And with their every performance, the Reynas have found that the mariachi men have become more accepting of the female factor.
"We are bringing a new perspective to the music," Sobrino says. "A new direction. A new future. I think when people come to our shows they say, 'Oh boy, we're going to see a bunch of pretty women and hopefully they'll do something cute.' They don't think of us as mariachis. Then after a show they say, 'You are mariachis!" And I say, 'Yes, we are.'"
She pauses. Her eyes sparkle. Her smile widens.
Says la companera: "I am a mariachi. Mariachi es mi vida."
Mariachi is her life.
Background: Born in Watsonville, California, lives in Montebello.
Family: Married to Dan Sobrino for five years. The couple have a 3-year-old daughter, Nicte, and a 2-year-old son, Nazul.
Passions: Spending time with her children every morning at the park and the library. When she's not with her own kids, Sobrino loves teaching youngsters the mariachi style of music through the Mariachi Heritage Society's youth program at the Los Angeles Music and Art School in East L.A., North Ranchito Elementary School in Pico Rivera, Magnolia Elementary in Los Angeles and Maxwell Elementary in Duarte.
Why she loves mariachi: "When mariachi music starts the first thing you year is the people doing their gritos (shouts). They immediately become connected to you.... The more the audience connects with me the more I can give. That's what moves me."
On respect for mariachi music: "I remember one time I went to a home to play at 4 am on Mother's Day. The house was just one big room and a dirt floor. They wanted us to play for one hour. They fed us tamales and asked us if we wanted some tequila, whatever we wanted before even playing one note. They treated us like royalty. They were poor but they paid for mariachis."
On leading 12 women: "For a while there were some jealousies because one girl was singing more that another or because somebody was featured more on her instrument. Finally, I said, 'Look, you know we're starting to be at the musical level wehere we want to be. And the only way the God is going to allow us to take it further is if you guys just eliminate all the personal problems. The honeymoon is over, ladies. We've got to work!"
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