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Meet The Sometimes California-Based Artist Behind A New Series of Mariachi Postal Stamps

A single stamp features a musician on left, a page has four rows of all five stamps featuring mariachis playing the guitar, guitarrón, vihuela, violin and trumpet.
Artist Rafael López, who was born in Mexico City and lives in San Diego, was commissioned to create stamps honoring mariachi for the U.S. Postal Service.
(Art by Rafael López
Courtesy USPS )
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The U.S. Postal Service debuted a new set of stamps featuring Mariachi musicians this month.

Perhaps you, like me, have been waiting in anticipation for this moment for the last six months.

I’m very sentimental about the mail. My nana (maternal grandmother) was a postmaster in rural Southern Arizona and I grew up paging through her stamp albums. Now as the people I love have spread far and wide, I send letters and postcards because it feels like a better representation of my care than text on a screen.

So yes, I raised my hand when offered the opportunity to interview Rafael López, the artist who created the designs. He was born and raised in Mexico City and now splits his time between San Diego and San Miguel de Allende, the Central Mexico mountain town he called from.

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His Process

Hands sketching the image of a woman Mariachi musician with a black pen on white paper.
López started the designs on paper before switching to a tablet. He still creates the textures in the portraits by hand with paint and layers them onto the digital image.
(Courtesy Rafael López)

The original pitch was to create a single Mariachi stamp. But López quickly realized you couldn’t squash even the simplest band into an inch-sized image. He has illustrated 13 stamps for USPS, including a set of Latin music legends. He said the key is choosing bold simple details.

Each of the five central instruments— the guitarra, guitarrón, vihuela, violin and the trumpet— and the musician playing them occupy their own frame.

López said it was also a priority to include a woman to represent their inroads into the traditionally male-dominated genre.

López’s memories, vintage travel posters and the musicians playing in San Miguel de Allende’s El Jardín or central plaza, inspired the images.

He also thought about the heartbreak often featured in the Golden Age of Mexican cinema.

“They always lost the girls, went to a bar, got drunk and Mariachis magically appeared behind them, and you go, ‘Wait a minute, that never happens to me when I feel sad,’” López said.

Musical Inspiration

Classics like El Son de La Negra blasted in the studio as he sketched the initial designs on paper.

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“I’m also a guitar—” López stopped short. “Well, I pretend to be a guitar player, I [have] played the guitar since I’m 5-years-old.”

He’s learned enough to strum along to favorite songs like La Bikina, which tells the story of a sorrowful, but proud woman.

López scanned the drafts into a tablet and started filling in colors and shadows. He created the textures of the dark traje de charro, the sombreros and the musician’s skin with paint and layered them onto the digital images.

The top of the image is a row of five stamps each featuring one of five iconic Mariachi instruments— the guitarra, guitarrón, vihuela, violin and the trumpet— and the musician playing them. The bottom of the image shows the artist, in red pants, a cream-colored jacket and dark hat standing in the midst of a group of Mariachi musicians.
López said he kept the background of the stamps simple so that Mariachi's and their instruments would stand out.
(Courtesy Rafael López. )

López stumbled across Mariachi bands from Europe to Japan in his research.

“That really made me so proud too, that Latinos contribute to something that many people from different cultures can can really take on as their own and learn to love it,” López said.

Sometimes the connection is more local.

“You could be with strangers listening to Mariachi music and 10 minutes later as we're all friends,” López said.

What questions do you have about Southern California?