Magazine article The Hispanic Outlook in Higher Education

Women in Mariachi Music: An Untamed Spirit

Magazine article The Hispanic Outlook in Higher Education

Women in Mariachi Music: An Untamed Spirit

Article excerpt

Dr n Leonor Xóchitl Pérez walked 11 r across the outdoor stage at the MW 1 *Women's Museum of California in San Diego dressed in a black mariachi charro suit with intricate design, carrying her violin. The more than 200 people in the audience had come to hear El Mariachi Femenil, an afternoon concert of female mariachi bands, including Grammy nominee, Wo Ellas.

But for Pérez, a classically trained violinist and mariachi player, the concert was icing on the cake of her more than 10 years of research on nearly 70 women in mariachi from the United States, Mexico and South America. Since 1999, Pérez has joined forces with mariachi trailblazer Laura Sobrino and author Nancy Muñoz, sharing their resources to eventually produce the Viva el Mariachi Femenil: Mariachi Women Pioneers 1903-2013 exhibit that opened at the Women's Museum, an elaborate pictorial, audio and visual celebration of the history of women in mariachi music.

The concert featured Rebecca Gonzales, the first female mariachi musician in the U.S. to perform with a professional high-profile male mariachi group and with Mariachi Los Camperos, as well as Trio Ellas, Mariachi Las Colibri, The Women of Mariachi de Uclatlán, and an All-Star Female Mariachi Group composed of women who have influenced mariachi music.

It was the highlight of Pérez's lifelong love with mariachi music. "I've come full circle," said Pérez, who is also the Artistic Projects Manager for the San Diego Symphony. "I've traveled the world, earned degrees - even from Harvard - but my heart brings me back to this."

"This" is her love, respect, passion, and awe of mariachi music and more specifically, women musicians in this male-dominated musical genre. "We're taking the machismo out of mariachi."

A Kickstarter online campaign brought in foundation money, while support and structure came from the Women's Museum. Articles, recorded interviews, artifacts, mariachi uniforms and vintage photographs filled the museum.

The exhibit was a personal milestone as well as a professional one. Mariachi music was the connection to Pérez's roots. It offered an opportunity to further her education. It gave her an inkling of the power a female mariachi musician has to upend stereotypes. "Women benefit when they play mariachi music, certainly," says Pérez. "They escape from traditional gender roles, gain power and acquire a voice. There's a lot of freedom of expression and selfidentity when you can throw a grito and let loose that inner power. When I sang, people listened."

The Roots to Self-Identity Began with Mariachi Music

Although her parents were born in Fresno, Calif., they were sent to Mexico for repatriation, which affected Pérez's self-identity. "Culturally, we were Mejicanos. Technically we were not immigrants but we lived an immigrant life as farmworkers."

Her parents were untrained musicians, even though her dad played piano and guitar by ear. Growing up in East Los Angeles, Pérez and her sisters all played and/or sang with their Pentecostal church, a world away from anything as secular and "worldly" as mariachi. "It was certainly not music a girl played, especially because it was played in bars and where women shouldn't be," she said.

Even so, her rebellious nature kicked in and she began playing at age 9. Through an unlikely series of events, mentors and bucking of tradition, she took flight. In seventh grade, she joined her first mixed-gender mariachi band. Her mentor, Jesús Sánchez, known as Don Chuy, took her under his wing.

Pérez performed for 11 years before taking a 10-year hiatus. Through a feminist theoretical framework, she started her search for identity. "The theme that cuts across all generations is that women have felt constrained in their daily lives, as far as expectations of who they should be," she says.

Her essay, "Transgressing the Taboo: A Chicana's Voice in the Mariachi World," was published in the 2002 book Chicana Traditions: Continuity and Change by Norma Cantú. …

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