Mariachi Women: Conversations with Leonor Xóchitl Pérez and Monica Treviño

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The Mariachi Women’s Festival comes to the Tucson Convention Center’s Leo Rich Theater on May 4. BorderLore spoke with its director, violinist Leonor Xóchitl Pérez, and with performer Monica Treviño, about their very different experiences as mariachis.

Mariachi Women's Festival poster

El Grito: A Conversation with Leonor Xóchitl Pérez

Leonor Xóchitl Pérez is the director and founder of the Mariachi Women’s Festival. A violinist, she has played with mariachi groups in Los Angeles and Washington, D.C. Her chapter “Trangressing the Taboo: A Chicana’s Voice in the Mariachi World” was published in the book, Chicana Traditions: Continuity and Change (2002, University of Illinois Press). Pérez is the curator and creator of the Mariachi Women’s Festival and the traveling exhibit, “Trailblazing Women of Mariachi Music,” which is now associated with the play “American Mariachi” written by José Cruz Gonzalez. Currently, Perez is working to take the festival to London.

Leonor Xóchitl Pérez
Leonor Xóchitl Pérez

BL: How did you get started with mariachi music?

LXP: I started playing mariachi music at Griffith Junior High School in East Los Angeles in 1973. I was 13. I was a classical violinist and first chair in the orchestra. I had never really seen up close a guitarrón or viruela. Hearing the depth of that guitarrón, I could feel it vibrating in my body. It was a very visceral and physical response to a music I knew so little about. I told my mom and dad and they kind of rolled their eyes.

At that time most of the mariachis that performed in CA were immigrants and were male. To see a mariachi group in a school program that invited boys and girls was not something we were used to. The program at my school was one of California’s first school-based mariachi program—probably one of the first in the nation. It was an afterschool program. Of course, there was Los Changuitos Feos in Tucson, but that was a community program before the school-based programs started.

In my view, there were multiple forces that came together for school programs. The Civil Rights Act of 1964, multiculturalism, and the 1968 Bilingual Education Act, which allotted federal funding for language and cultural programs. Also, the rise of ethnomusicology departments in universities. Jesus Sanchez, my teacher, who we called “Don Chuy,” was also the mariachi teacher for UCLA dept of ethnomusicology, where he had taught since the late ’60s. That’s how these factors came together that opened the door to this kind of experience.

Growing up in East Los Angeles, where the population was 98 percent Mexican American or Mexican immigrant, it was kind of hard to ignore mariachi music. I was raised in very strict Pentecostal background. You thought of mariachi as music played in bars or restaurants, so it had a negative association. My parents had big dreams for us and wanted us to get big jobs and have careers. But was a little contradictory. On the one hand my mother encouraged us to dance folklorico and we heard mariachi for that, but it was not something to perform because it was a male performance genre done in bars and restaurants and parties.  When mariachi came out also beer and tequila came out.  So I had limited exposure except during folklorico dancing, on occasions like Cinco de Mayo or Mexican Independence day.

BL: What kinds of doors did mariachi open for you?

LXP: I played for a year and my teacher didn’t want me to stop performing. So, from eighth grade to eleventh grade, I would play with university students. That’s when it got complicated for my parents. I’m hanging out with Chicano student activists, learning about Latin American social and political life. I was having a college experience at a very young age. I would perform at protests and rallies. I would end up in very interesting places. I remember skipping school in junior high and getting picked up and going to play for a film. Once we played at the federal penitentiary. I remember these big doors opening and closing behind us. The prisoners made plaques for us in their wood shop to thank us. These were things that a 16-year-old in East LA wouldn’t normally do.

It got complicated for my parents because it was about the movement and the causes and they were concerned about where and who I was performing with. When I was in 11th grade, they decided they wanted me to stop and they took the violin away from me. All this was going on, and my father got intestinal cancer. They wanted me to focus on home life.

I was also a writer and I applied for an internship at the Robert Kennedy Memorial Foundation and its student press service in Washington, D.C. Around that time in LA, my mariachi teacher introduced me to Dan Sheehy, who later became folk arts director for NEA in Washington, D.C. He had just started a mariachi group in D.C.

I got news that I was accepted for internship, but the stipend was only $400 a month and I didn’t even have money for airfare. I thought, I better get in the mariachi band. I asked Dan, shall I audition, and he said, You’re in, we’ll include you. So I moved to DC when I was 18. And that’s how I survived, playing mariachi music.

It was a phenomenal experience. Dan was connected to the arts community there, so we got a lot of gigs. They hired us to play for Reagan’s inaugural ball. There I was at 19 playing for the ball, and Nancy Reagan came in with that red dress. That was quite an experience for a girl from East LA. We played for George H. Bush’s inaugural ball as well. And Hispanic Heritage month had just emerged, so everyone wanted a cultural event that was affordable. We played for the CIA, the FBI all of that. Every time there was a Latino convening, we would be the ones to play.

We had to recruit non-Latinos to the band to make it work. We brought in two women fiddlers and we had to turn them into mariachis. But a lot of the pressure was off. It wasn’t like in LA where you had to snap to it or fake it. In mariachi, there’s a tremendous amount of repertoire you have to know by memory. But in D.C., people asked for the same songs.

I stayed in D.C. for five years. It was so wonderful. It really changed my life.

Leonor Xóchitl Pérez
Leonor Xóchitl Pérez

BL: You went on to study and document women in mariachi. What did you discover?

LXP: In 1988 I wrote a narrative, “Trangressing the Taboo,” in which I reflected on my own experiences.  I was in graduate school learning ethnography. I applied those methods to my own question. That chapter became one that was very much appreciated in fields of ethnomusicology, gender studies, and Chicano studies. It was a descriptive piece of writing, full of Spanglish, with an analysis of changing gender issues over time. After that, I started interviewing other women mariachis and connecting the dots of unknown women’s history that spans really 100 years in Mexico and the US. I found an all-female group in Mexico called Las Adelitas from 1948. They were in their 80s when I found them. In the US, the first was in Alamo, Texas, called Las Rancheritas. They performed from 1968 to 1983.

In 2012 the Women’s Museum of California in San Diego asked to assist me in the first ever exhibit on women’s mariachi with photographs, films, and stories. But I realized people really needed to know what it sounds like. We needed to hear them. Many of mariachi festivals bring now bring a token group of women, but I wondered what would it sound like if all of us got together and dominated the stage?

So we held the first ever all-women mariachi concert. I brought two of the pioneers in their 80s and recognized them on stage. It was such a powerful experience. The audience stood up and got so close to the stage, they couldn’t get enough of it. You know those experiences when things go into slow motion and you feel so emotionally moved? There’s something here that people are very moved by. I thought, this can’t just be one concert.

I decided to launch the first ever mariachi women’s festival in Los Angeles—where I had grown up—in 2014 for international women’s month in March. We brought Mariachi Divas, Mariachi Flor de Toloache from New York, and Trio Ellas as the main stage groups.

I had to sell tickets to make it work because I didn’t have any grants. I created pre-concert community stage and encouraged women and girls from the community to come and play there. Flor de Toloache, now a Grammy award winner, had never been to California. So there was a lot of hesitancy. They finally called me two months after my initial invite. I said, Sweetheart, we’re full. I can’t afford to pay your airfare, because I already have a group from Texas. So they paid for their own airfare and begged for time.

Los Angeles is a very traditional audience. Flor de Toloache is more contemporary. I was nervous because they do a lot of fusion. But there is such a range. We express this music in so many different ways and live this music in so many different ways. It’s unfair to say, this is how it’s done with women. So I wanted to show the public there is a range–from heavy traditional to Flor de Toloache—and you can decide where on the continuum you will fit. Flor de Toloache came out and wore mermaid dresses with like Shakespearean sleeves, and I was like, Oh my god! The curtain opens and the audience laughs. But the girls are trained musicians. This is hard to ignore. They played both traditional and contemporary music. And they are multicultural, with different ethnicities represented in the group. The audience went wild, and I was able to breathe again.

BL: Why is important to honor mariachi women?

LXP: It’s important for us to honor stories and dances from traditions that tell who we are as a people. And if we’re going to do that work, we have to consider that women are important players even in a male-dominated genre. In mariachi music, like in many other fields, the story of women is untold or erased or forgotten, often because they had to get married and have children.

Women in this genre very often describe their experience as empowering because it engages them in ways that are outside of the social and cultural norms of how they’ve been raised. For example, a lot of the women like the assertiveness of the music. I did, too. I grew up in a very religious home. I was always told to be quiet, compliant, gentle, and demure. And I was none of those things. But I had to be. Then I go to mariachi, where my teacher said, “Do not be afraid of that violin. Dig into that string with your bow arm as hard as you can.” And you see this when women play. Their backs are straight, they’re holding their instruments—it’s a powerful, engaging experience. You don’t always get opportunities for that in everyday life, and here you are exercising that every time you play.

The other thing is the grito. Especially for the first women who were performing in Mexico in 1948. Women didn’t get the right to vote in Mexico until 1953. One of the women I interviewed, Margarita Angulo, talks about the first time she let out a grito. She didn’t expect it. She was so quiet, and she let out this big yell, and she said it felt so cathartic. She thought, Oh no I’m in trouble. But afterwards the director said, No, do it more!

I hear this often, across all generations of women. How we express the music engages us in physical, verbal, interactional ways that we wouldn’t normally engage with in everyday life.

One of the Guys: A Conversation with Monica Treviño

BL: What is your mariachi origin story? How did you start playing?

MT: I started here in Tucson. I was in high school, and a friend of mine, Julie Maldonado was in a group, Mariachi Nuevo de Tucson. She said, “We need a violin, Monica. You want to come to the rehearsal and try it?” So I did. I had a great time and loved it. I was at Sunnyside High School. There was no mariachi program then, it was non-existent. So it was really hard for me. I used to have to go to the board and ask for days off to perform. They thought it was a waste of time for me. But I was a good student. I graduated eighth in my class. But they gave me a hard time.

Monica Treviño
Monica Treviño

I then started playing with Tierra del Sol, another Tucson group. The musicians were all older—in their 20s and 30s, and I was 18. In around 1984, Mariachi Los Camperos, Mariachi Vargas, and Mariachi Los Galleros came here to Tucson from Los Angeles. So I was about a year from graduation and I told my mom, I am going to be in Los Camperos. They had a girl in the group and I hadn’t seen that. I told my mom I wanted to get into Los Camperos. I didn’t even know Spanish. That was my main goal to get into that group. I couldn’t get that out of my head.

When I graduated, I had full scholarship to UCLA. But I did not go. I just wanted to try mariachi. My mom supported me but my dad wasn’t happy with me. I ended up going to LA with Cuco Del Cid. I was good friends with his daughter, and he took me under his wing.

The plan was to go play with Cuco, and I knew that I had to learn repertoire. I knew how to sing, but my Spanish kinda sucked at that time. I played with Cuco for about six months. We would just play repertoire up the ying-yang. That’s where I learned.

Monica Treviño
Monica Treviño con Los Camperos.

Then I finally started calling Los Camperos, saying, I would like to speak to Nati Cano.  They would take my message. I must have been a pain in the butt, because I was leaving six or seven messages a day, every day for three months.

Later, Nati Cano said he liked that, he liked making me work. So after three months of harassing him, he showed up to see me play with Cuco. That band was called Los Aguilas. We played at a place called Rocky’s. I remember he walked in and sat down and I started having a heart attack.

I wasn’t sure if he was there to see me. I just stayed away. I was terrified. But afterwards, I got a note saying, Please be at La Fonda on Sunday at 7:30. I was like, Oh my gosh. I didn’t tell anybody. I just couldn’t believe it. It was my Cinderella story.  I don’t know how that happened. I went and played, and Nati said, You’re going to get fitted for a suit and you’ll be there Friday night.

There was no real music in my family. My mom sang and my grandfather also sang. But we weren’t a family of mariachis.

I was where I was supposed to be. It was home. I’d studied violin since fourth grade, I was classically trained. I never felt so comfortable.

I played in Los Camperos until 93 or 94 and went to Mariachi Tlaquepaque, which was made up of ex-Camperos and ex-Galleros.  Then I played with Mariachi Garibaldi.  These were some of the best musicians around.

I moved back to Tucson in 2002. My dad passed away and left me his home here. My then-husband and I had our first baby. Now I play with Azteca del Sol. We have a contract with Bashas and Food City and Casa Valencia.

BL: What was it like for you being a woman in a traditionally male-dominated field?

MT: I’m not going to say I’m a feminist. The difference between me and other women is that I never liked to be singled out for being a woman. When I got in there, I was 19 and I wanted to be one of the guys. I didn’t want to be singled out. Today girls love to be singled out.

In all honesty, I’m not a fan of female groups. For me mariachi has to have men, I’m sorry. Also—and this isn’t popular—I  don’t like seeing children in mariachi.  The music is for adults. In order to interpret the song, the hurt, you can’t be a child. I’ve seen little girls sing lyrics that are like, you’ve got to be kidding me, she’s 12, she has no idea what those metaphors mean. I’m not a fan of that.

If you want to be in a man’s world you have to act like it. You can’t be crying every two minutes.

I never encountered those obstacles that said women shouldn’t be in mariachi. I don’t know where these stories are coming from. I was never ridiculed. On the contrary, when I’d walk up to the mike, people would stand and go crazy.

So, yeah, I didn’t want to be seen as the girl in the group. I wanted to be as good as the guys. They pushed me and made me good. They supported me.

Monica Treviño
Monica Treviño

I had things happen to me, but fortunately they made me strong enough. I’m like a guy. I’m very fortunate. You have to know where you’re going and know where you want to go. If you’re a girl with long nails and you want to do construction and you want to keep your nails and you show up and start working and your nails break and you cry, well that’s no good. The ones that cry for every little reason make it bad for the rest of us.

I knew what I had to do. If men bothered me, I would just get them back. I remember once we were recording with Linda [Rondstadt], and some men started messing with my hair, pulling my shirt. I never felt afraid. I could always stand my ground. I would put my foot down. I really just did my thing and I didn’t worry about that stuff. I’d slap them on the butt. I never felt threatened or that someone was being disrespectful. They knew that I’d get them back. You have to know how to let them know. I did that by being a real good musician and a real good singer. I was spoiled rotten and they took care of me.

I played with all the men. They had a different respect for me. I wanted to be respected for my ability and my talent. I am a hardcore mariachi.

Mariachi music is very soulful. All about how “I loved and I left and he left and she left.” It’s like country music in that way. There are all the songs that have made all of us cry. The music carries all of it. Everybody has a soul, so everybody has to feel something.

That’s what I think my purpose was.  I think I heal people with my voice. I played this morning at a funeral and had people come up to me saying, you made me cry.  When I sing and I make somebody cry I know I’m making them feel something deep inside. It’s about making people feel good.

Monica Treviño
Monica Treviño

My hands are getting tired. I have bad arthritis and neuropathy I’ve been playing violin for 44 years. The thought of not being able to play? I don’t know. It’s like water, you can’t live without it.

I like to see people be able to touch their souls. I didn’t see it for a long time. I know it as a gift now. Not everyone can touch souls.

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