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What It's Like To Be A Mariachi Performer On Cinco De Mayo

Photo of the author (Courtesy of Diego Rentería/LAist)
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By Diego Rentería

In the grand U.S. tradition of co-opting ethnic pride as an excuse to get totally blotto, this weekend bars and dorm rooms across the United States have been celebrating the Mexican Army’s 1862 defeat of invading French imperial forces (nevermind Mexico’s subsequent defeat and status as French colony for three years). Drinko de Mayo, Gringo de Mayo, whatever you call it, is what Gustavo Arellano calls a "mestizo St. Patrick’s Day." This weekend will be the only time of year mainstream U.S. will want to be Mexican, putting on fake bushy mustaches, wearing sombreros and listening to Antonio Aguilar lament about being away from his homeland.

I am a mariachi musician. I’ve considered myself one since 2000, when I joined an afterschool mariachi education program at my middle school at the beginning of the 6th grade. I instantly loved it—I was learning music that moved me and connected with my family history and budding identity. Mariachi defines who I am, gives me meaning and solace and is my creative outlet.

My paternal grandfather was a mariachi musician in Jalisco and family parties almost always were a musical affair, with my uncles or dad singing with musicians. Growing up, my dad played my grandfather’s recordings all the time and the radio in our immigrant househould was constantly tuned to ranchera & norteño music: KWKW La Mexicana 1330, KTNQ, La Ranchera 930, and La X 97.9 were omnipresent in our apartment. Something about the communal nature of musical performance called me from a young age and I jumped at the opportunity to join a mariachi group in middle school as a way to get a musical education.

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We were taught by Frank Lemus in middle school and he taught me a lot about how mariachis perform, what they should do, how the music should be performed—not played—and other little things which improved all of us a lot, both musically and personally. Through the middle school mariachi, we had a lot of chances to experience mariachi outside the school, including at the Hollywood Bowl in 2003 for the Mariachi USA Festival (we were part of the opening act and I nearly fell off the stage).

After middle school, my friends and I decided to start our own mariachi band. Mariachi was my job in high school and I devoted most weekends to performances throughout Southern California. College was no different: I was part of a school mariachi band, but did not devote myself fully to performing for money on weekends.

In those thirteen years of performing throughout the Los Angeles and Boston areas, I encountered vastly different performance contexts. I played for different races, people who were unfamiliar with Mexican music and others who were veteran mariachi fans.

Mostly Anglo audiences, as many mariachis face every Cinco de Mayo, have little or no knowledge of Mexican music and the mariachis are mere dressing in the ethnic tossed salad that is Cinco de Mayo, paid to play in the hopes of lending “authenticity” to the event. Cinco De Mayo is a lucrative day, no doubt about it, but I always hated playing, because it meant dealing with way too many drunk people who don’t care for the music we’re playing.

It doesn't help that in the gabacho psyche the other 364 days a year, Mexican music is portrayed as a pollutant, invading ear canals and airwaves with ear-splitting caterwauls. Adam Carolla used Indie 103’s demise as an excuse to launch into a diatribe about Mexican music, calling it "for ‘tards, by 'tards, to make people 'tardier."

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Mother’s Day is at the other end of mariachi performance spectrum. It falls just five days after Cinco de Mayo (but in the U.S. it’s the second Sunday of May). That day starts early for mariachis, typically with a serenade to wake up the mothers of the household. Mother’s Day is a succession of gigs at different churches and houses; the longest Mother’s Day for me involved ten hours of performing throughout Los Angeles. Those were some of the best performances I’ve ever done. The warm Los Angeles night and good spirits of family parties mixes with audience members who are mostly those familiar with mariachi music. They come to us and request songs for us to play or to accompany them in singing something. The wall between performer and passive audience breaks—it is now a relationship between performer and active participant.

Regardless of what sort of audience I’m performing for, this is what motivates me to stick around the mariachi scene, even if I consider myself semi-retired. It’s this active participation by a responsive audience that fills me with pride. I’ve succeeded if I have elicited a response, from dancing to laughter to tears over a recently deceased child. More importantly, it’s what ties me to my family and it is who I am.