Misa Panamericana

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The Mariachi gathers themes from life – love, bitterness, revolution, machismo, betrayal, even faith. It’s fitting that this vibrant folk musician also is a viable witness to sacramental life in the Roman Catholic community.

In a folk music mosaic that blends colorful harmony and vocal energy with its thickly-constructed orchestration – the rhythmic, poignant cultural statements of the Mariachi stir many dimensions of spirit.

Mariachi music, a hybrid of native, mestizo, African and Spanish influences, grew out of mid-19th century oral and musical traditions from the Mexican state of Jalisco. Mariachi was music of the people, played for village festivals as well as for social occasions in grand haciendas. As audiences grew so did musical styles — Early formal ensembles performed with the arpa grande 36-string harp, violin and smaller guitarra de golpe. In the 1900s the arpa was replaced with the large guitarron, the guitarra replaced with the vihuela, and the ensemble also evolved to include brass instruments, the trumpet.

Jim Griffith notes Mariachi’s arrival in Southern Arizona “after World War II.” (Griffith, “Southern Arizona Folk Arts,” University of Arizona Press, 1988, page 18.) But the blending of this traditionalism to create new interpretations of the Roman Catholic Church’s most sacred ceremony – the Mass liturgy– occurred in the 1960s, after the Second Vatican Council approved use of the Mariachi folk mass, to be sung in Spanish. The first Mariachi Mass, called la Misa Panamericana, was written by Canadian priest Juan Marco Leclerc, and commissioned by Cuernavaca, Mexico Bishop Sergio Mendez Arceo in 1966.

Mariachi Los Changuitos Feos, 1960s Mass
Mariachi Los Changuitos Feos, 1960s Mass

Tucson was an early adopter of the Mariachi Mass, as a city already entrenched in the passion of mariachi music. After the 1963 Vatican Council, one parish priest (Father Charles Rourke) of Tucson’s now closed All Saints Church, organized Los Changuitos Feos – the ugly little monkeys – the first youth mariachi band in the city, and perhaps in the country. This small group of neighborhood students studied their instruments and folkloric canciones, performing at special community gatherings and, eventually, at the Mariachi Masses.

True to their culture, the early Changuitos performed in simple uniforms of black pants, white shirts and sombreros. As the group became established, they later adopted the elaborately embroidered attire of the Mexican horseman, wearing their traje de charro – the silver-studded bolero-style jacket, shirt, moño (bow tie), boots, decorated leather belt and buckle, and decorated sombrero.

Elders from the Changuitos’ early years recall how the Mariachi Mass stood for a respect for tradition and affirmation of community belief. Alex Garcia, Sr., a Changuito performer in the 1970s and 1980s, recalls playing along with his brother Fernando and a core group of older Mariachi in the St. Augustine Cathedral, as well as at the Roman Catholic Newman Center of the U of A campus (for Mariachi Masses instituted by the Newman center’s director, Rev. Richard Butler, O.P.).

Tucson Mariachi players led by Victor Mendoza, and including Armando Vasquez, Joe Cruz and Tony Garcia, were the first to perform the early Mariachi Masses instituted at the Cathedral, recalls Alex, who also remembers how he, his brother Fernando and other younger Mariachis would help out the elders at the Cathedral Masses in the early years. “We were young, returning home very late after performing Saturday night gigs. Sunday mornings, Victor would call our home asking us to play at the Mass, and I remember our mom waking us up to tell us to get to Church. Lots of wonderful memories of those special early times with the Mariachi Masses,” he says.

With both faith and music deeply integrated into Tucson’s Spanish-speaking communities, it is easy to understand how the passion of the music still affirms faith and sacred Mass Liturgy. The Mariachi Mass brings an ensemble of folk musicians to fill the Church sanctuary with unique sounds that resonate with even non-Spanish-speaking Mass participants. All feel familiarity when the entrance hymn, Gloria, Alleluia, Offertory, Credo, Sanctus, and Agnus Dei are sung in the Mariachi Mass. Alex’s favorite, Virgencita Mexicano, is still a song performed by current-day Changuitos who sing the Mariachi Mass every third Sunday at the Cathedral. Mariachi Tapatio is another Tucson Mariachi band who also performs at the Cathedral’s Mariachi Mass.

Mariachi music itself was inscribed on the Representative List of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO, the cultural and educational arm of the United Nations, in 2011. In celebrating Hispanic culture, the Mariachi Mass also personifies diversity in the Roman Catholic church. La Misa Panamericana succeeds in enhancing a most sacred religious ceremony in its musical artistry, in music that comes from the soul.


Mariachi Los Changuitos Feos will celebrate its 50th anniversary August 21-23 in a Mariachi reunion weekend of music, dinner, a Celebration concert and discussion. Funds raised will continue the Los Changuitos tradition of providing college scholarships to its graduates. Learn more: http://loschanguitosfeos.org/


  • Daniel E. Sheehy, acting director of the Smithsonian Latino Center, will participate at the August Los Changuitos celebration. Sheehy co-curated Nuestra Música: Music in Latino Culture, which documented, preserved and disseminated Latino musical expression via the Smithsonian’s Folklife Festival, the Tradiciones/Traditions recording series and the virtual exhibition “Música del Pueblo.” See: http://www.musicadelpueblo.org/
  • Read more from Big Jim: James Griffith, “Southern Arizona Folk Arts,” University of Arizona Press, 1988, Music and Dance, pages 18-30 http://books.google.com/books/about/Southern_Arizona_Folk_Arts.html?id=fihdAAAAMAAJ

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