MARIACHI MUSIC. Although most people enjoy the atmosphere of alegría (joy) generated by a good mariachi group, few are familiar with the background of mariachi music in either Mexico or Texas. Today large mariachis with the traditional instrumentation of trumpets, violins, guitar, vihuela and guitarrón are easy to locate in all Texas cities, while smaller groups are ubiquitous entertainment in Mexican restaurants throughout the state.
The music they play can be quite intricate and has a colorful history covering the past 200 years. The story of the mariachi, especially its development before the twentieth century, is sketchy, but by piecing together various bits of information from historical records we can say that mariachis probably first appeared in the late 1700s as regional music groups in the small towns of Jalisco, Mexico. These groups, primarily folk string ensembles, often consisted of a harp, two violins, and a vihuela (a small five-string guitar with a rounded back). They played mostly local or regional sones (instrumental pieces), using a complex 6/8 meter. Changes came by the late 1800s, when vocals were added to many of the sones and the harp was slowly replaced by the bass guitarrón. This instrument, invented for the mariachis, is a much larger version of the vihuela with six bass strings; it produces a bass sound of great volume and is more portable than the harp.
Other changes came to mariachi instrumentation and repertoire in the twentieth century, such as the addition of the trumpet. A number of different versions account for this addition. According to Philip Sonnichsen, a noted scholar of Mexican music, the longtime popularity of the brass band in Mexico is behind it. "In small pueblos," he writes, "ensembles might well use whatever instruments were available: thus mariachis using flutes, clarinets and even trombones were known to exist." The trumpet, he states, was briefly introduced into the famous Mariachi Vargas in 1913 and the historic Mariachi Coculense de Cirilo Marmolejo in 1925.
By the 1930s trumpets were widely accepted as part of the modern mariachi ensemble, which thus acquired the ability to perform a wide variety of musical styles in addition to the regional sones of Jalisco. The versatile combination of strings, brass, a powerful bass, and the rhythm and harmony of the guitar and vihuela opened the door for commercial success. From the 1930s on, mariachis became the standard backup bands for popular singers in Mexico.
In its customary modern form, a mariachi group must include violins, trumpets, guitar, vihuela, and guitarrón. The typical mariachi must be able to perform sones, polkas, waltzes, boleros (modern love ballads), rancheras (country "ranch" songs), and any other popular song that is requested and that people are willing to pay for. Since mariachis work primarily as "request bands," playing whatever a customer wants to hear, they are often paid on a per-song basis or for the amount of time they play. With their trademark black and silver regional dress, the traje de charro (Jalisco cowboy outfit), they have appeared in movies, on recordings, and on live radio with such classic Mexican stars as Pedro Infante, Jorge Negrete, Javier Solís, and with ranchera (ranch-country) music greats such as José Alfredo Jiménez, Antonio Aguilar and Vicente Fernández. Through this exposure, mariachi groups and mariachi music have become the best-known Mexican musical style all over the world. Who can think of Mexican music without picturing a mariachi group?
The mariachi's historical uncertainties, however, are further reflected by the mystery surrounding the origins of the word itself. Some scholars have suggested that during the French occupation of Mexico in the 1860s, local groups who played at French wedding parties came to be known as "mariachis," a derivation of French mariage. Sonnichsen, however, cites a letter written by a priest in the state of Nayarit as early as 1852 that refers specifically to "mariachis" and their music. Other stories offer further explanations: that the term comes from one of the local indigenous languages, that it comes from the name María, or that it is transferred from the name for a dance platform. Whatever the origin, the term is commonly used today to apply not only to the large musical ensemble, but to the musical style and to the individual musicians who play Mexican music, whether they are part of a large group or not.
Texas has a long tradition of musicians and guitarreros (guitar-playing singers that some might call mariachis) playing Mexican folk and popular music on request. In the 1920s and 1930s, La Plaza del Zacate or Haymarket Square in San Antonio was where the local populace went to hear such famous duos as Rocha and Martínez or the family of Lydia Mendoza sing popular Mexican tunes. In the 2010s this tradition continued in the same area, where many mariachi groups performed nightly at the well-known restaurant Mi Tierra. Besides the guitarreros, small ad hoc music groups called orquestas típicas, which probably spread from Central and Northern Mexico, existed in Texas by the early 1900s. In his book The Texas-Mexican Conjunto: History of a Working-Class Music, Manuel Peña writes about this tradition of string and wind ensembles among South Texas Mexican Americans. String orquestas and their típica variants, he states, were widely known in the state by the early twentieth century, though "makeshift ensembles...must have been in currency long before. These continued to exist until the 1930s, when better-organized wind orquestas, patterned after the American swing bands and featuring saxophones, trumpets and piano began to appear with increasing frequency." The presence of such groups, using an instrumentation and folk or popular song repertoire similar to that found in mariachi groups, may explain why the mariachi style caught on so easily in Texas.
From about 1930 through the 1950s, the mariachi style gradually became the national popular music of Mexico. Lagging a decade or so behind, mariachi music in Texas began to become popular between the 1940s and the 1960s with the constant influx of immigrants from central Mexico. The new arrivals, who had not grown up with the local Texas-Mexican conjunto or orquesta Tejana musical styles, brought their own stylistic preferences with them. The popularity of mariachi music was also growing in the non-Hispanic population as more and more Texans visited tourist areas of Mexico. By the 1960s Spanish-language radio had proliferated over South Texas and could be found in major urban areas throughout the state. At that time stations in the Fort Worth–Dallas area played primarily mariachi music from Mexico rather than homegrown Texas-Mexican styles, partly because the area was largely populated by immigrants from central Mexico and also because of a prejudice against "lower-class" Texas-Mexican music (especially conjunto music).
The 1970s through the early twenty-first century saw continued growth in the popularity of mariachi music among all Hispanics as well as non-Hispanics in Texas so that conjunto, orquesta Tejana, and mariachi have equal and sometimes overlapping followings. The three types of music seem to have somewhat separate territories, however. Whether in large ensembles with full instrumentation or in smaller quartets or trios of varied instrumentation, mariachi groups function as popular entertainment at restaurants, house parties, weddings, and other similar occasions They also play at churches on such occasions as the memorial of Our Lady of Guadalupe. Conjuntos and orquestas, on the other hand, play primarily at dance halls or at parties featuring dancing.
Some highly polished concert mariachi groups, patterned after Mexico's famous Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlán, play nightclub and hotel shows in Mexico City, Los Angeles, and a few other large cities. Occasionally these types of mariachi groups can be found in Houston, San Antonio, or Austin. Several websites list cities, venues, and names of mariachi groups performing, and many mariachi groups now have their own promotional websites. Continuing immigration from Mexico, including musicians, has also helped to swell the ranks of both average restaurant-style and concert-style mariachi groups in Texas.
Today mariachi groups are not only a standard feature of the Texas music scene but are also found within the school systems. Since the 1970s, mariachi has been offered as a musical ensemble course in many universities, colleges, and public schools. Contrary to old stereotypes of out-of-tune violins and blaring trumpets, today's players are usually well-trained; many hold degrees from university music departments. Both the University of Texas at Austin and Texas A&M University at Kingsville have offered mariachi ensemble study since 1977. Junior high and high school mariachi programs date from the late 1970s in Austin, San Antonio, and several South Texas towns; from the early 1980s in Fort Worth and Houston; and from the late 1980s in El Paso. International mariachi conferences and workshops for these students were held yearly in San Antonio for many years beginning in the 1970s. In 2000 Southwest Texas State University (now Texas State University–San Marcos) began its annual "Feria del Mariachi" concert, which included the university's own mariachi ensemble and other groups. By 2010 the event had expanded to include instructional seminars about instrumentation, stage presence, arrangement, and mariachi traditions for participants, including middle and high school students. In the 2000s similar conferences were held in Tucson, Arizona, and many other cities throughout the Southwest.
Many of these conferences have traditionally hosted and still feature performances and instruction by current or former members of the Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlán—probably the best-known concert-style mariachi in Mexico. The new generations of mariachi musicians produced by the schools and universities over the past forty years have continued forming groups that have perpetuated the mariachi style throughout the state and that bode well to increase the popularity of mariachi music in Texas for decades to come.
Dan W. Dickey, The Kennedy Corridos: A Study of the Ballads of a Mexican American Hero (Center for Mexican-American Studies, University of Texas at Austin, 1978). Juan S. Garrido, Historia de la música popular en México (1896–1973) (Mexico City: Editorial Extemporáneos, 1974). Patricia Harpole and Mark Fogelquist, Los Mariachis (Danbury, Connecticut: World Music Press, 1989). Manuel Peña, The Texas-Mexican Conjunto: History of a Working-Class Music (Austin, University of Texas Press, 1985). Philip Sonnichsen, The Earliest Mariachi Recordings, ed. Chris Strachwitz (El Cerrito, California: Folklyric Records, 1986).