The Female Mariachi Pioneers in Mexico
DEFINITION OF THE WORD MARIACHI
Originally published in the MENC February 2009 Mariachi Newsletter. Reprinted by permission.
(Note: Laura Sobrino passed away on May 21, 2015 at the age of 60)
Laura Sobrino, one of the female mariachi pioneers in the U.S., has been a professional mariachi performer and a mariachi educator for 30 years. In her third year as a music lecturer at UC Riverside (Studio for Mexican Music and Dance), she also offers mariachi ensemble courses at East Los Angeles College and Rio Hondo College. Ms. Sobrino is also the musical director and a violinist for the Mariachi Mujer 2000, which in August 2008 represented the Americas at the Olympic Opening Ceremonies in the Bird’s Nest Stadium in Beijing, China.
On Wednesday, September 24, 2008, I presented two symposia, an "informance" if you will, at the San Jose Mariachi and Latin Music Festival in San Jose, California. The first symposium introduced six pioneer female mariachis from Mexico City who were members of a reunion group called "Mariachi Las Pioneras de México" and had performed with all-female mariachi show groups during the 1950s. The second symposium presented five female mariachi pioneers who performed in the San Jose area during the 1970s. The information shared at the event had never previously been presented. This article will summarize the presentation on the first all-female mariachi groups and the female mariachi pioneers in Mexico City (1950s). More information can be found on www.MujeresEnElMariachi.com.
URBAN MARIACHI STYLE: A CHANGE IN THE TRADITION
The repertory and musical style of the rural mariachi tradition had been changing since the 1930s. By the 1950s, an identifiable, new urban mariachi style was developing. The major center for this change was the nation's capital, Mexico City, and several mariachi groups, including Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlán, Mariachi México de Pépe Villa, Mariachi Tapatío, and Mariachi Marmolejo, were setting the standards for the urban mariachi style.
Mariachi music became a national and international symbol, and was in high demand for live radio broadcasts and cinema musicals. Mariachi groups were ubiquitous, performing for private events, national and international tours, and accompanying ranchera singers. It was a golden era for the music tradition.
THE START OF THE MEXICAN MARIACHI FEMENIL: 1950s
During the early 1950s, the standard all-male groups witnessed the emergence of all-female mariachi groups. These mariachis femeniles were comparable to the all-male ensembles in regards to their commitment to their profession, to high standards of musical performance, and to maintaining the mariachi style. The mariachi femenil was heard on the radio, seen in the cinema, contracted for extended national and international tours, and even backed up prominent ranchera singers.
These groups performed in the annual Santa Cecilia festivities, and on occasion performed next to Mariachi Vargas themselves. I recall meeting Mariachi Vargas for the first time at the San Antonio Mariachi Festival in 1979. I asked several members of the mariachi about female mariachis in Mexico, and the only response I could get from them is that women could not be in their group because they would all be challenged to conquest her!
After reviewing newspaper clippings and photos from the personal collections of these amazing women mariachi professionals, it is clear that the all-female mariachi groups were neither a national nor international secret. However, in spite of all this exposure, the 1950s mariachi femeniles in Mexico remained largely unrecognized until now.
THE MEXICAN MARIACHI FEMINILES AND SOME OF THEIR PIONEER WOMEN
During the early 1950s, three all-female mariachi groups worked full time in Mexico City. All three groups were directed by a female member of the mariachi.
The group for which I have the least information is the Mariachi Las Adelitas; I only have a reference to the group's director and a reference to a group of revolutionary women who fought courageously alongside men. During my two trips to Mexico City, I was only able to locate one surviving member, Martha Juárez Clemen (violin). However, she was in ill health during both trips and canceled interviews. She passed away in May 2008. Guitarrónplayer Adelita Chavez served as director of The Mariachi Las Adelitas throughout their existence.
The Mariachi Las Coronelas, under the direction of María Carlota Noriega, guitarrón, usually had between seven and eight musicians over the years, with only one trumpet player. The group contracted several national and international tours. It was a successful working group as they made enough money to purchase a variety of expensive uniforms, including the traditional traje de charro and several variations of Mexican regional dresses, like the china poblana. In the San Jose presentation, Magdalena Berrones informed the audience that the standard uniform for all three groups was the traje de charro, but that for more formal stage presentations, some of themariachis femeniles preferred to wear the china poblana because it seemed more elegant and more feminine.
I had the pleasure of meeting several members of Mariachi Las Coronelas during my two trips to Mexico City. Hilda López Soto (62, violin) and Luz Escoto (80, violin) chose not to participate in the informance tour. Hilda has retired and lives in Nezahuacoyotl, near Mexico City. Luz is working in Xochimilco (The Floating Gardens) near Mexico City, where for fifteen years she has played seven days a week.
Guitarist Guadalupe Hernández Monroy was born in 1933. She learned to play guitar from her father, who was also a professional musician. Lupe recounts that the group took their name from the polka "Las Coronelas" (Bonifacio Collazo), a song that was originally recorded in the late 1940s/early 1950s and was popular at the time the group was formed. She joined Mariachi Las Coronelas in April 1959, making her a second generation Coronela. After the group disbanded, she had a solo singing career for thirteen years in the state of Veracruz under her stage name, Lupe Villa. Lupe is very proud of her affiliation with the one mariachi femenil, a Coronela to the end.
The third group formed during the 1950s changed its original name of Mariachi Michoacano to Mariachi Estrellas de México. As one member tells it, the group had become so popular, the public began calling them the "stars of Mexico," thus the name change. The group was featured in several movies, including Las Señoritas Vivanco (1959). In 1963, two of the group's members were chosen to appear in the mariachi femenil for the movie, El Mariachi Canta, starring Lucha Villa and Luis Aguilar. The group toured extensively throughout Mexico, Latin America, and the United States.
The group director, Lupita Morales (trumpet), was their main vocalist, although most of the members sang. Lupita was also a singer in Dueto Las Lupes, which featured another group member, Magdalena Berrones. Following are two edited audio clips, first from a 78rpm of Mariachi Estrellas de México, and second featuring the Dueto Las Lupes.
Magdalena Berrones Berrones, born in 1940, started playing the guitar as a child. Her father was from Tamaulipas, a state in the region of traditional huasteca music. Her father was also a composer, best known for hiscorrido, "El Mayor de Los Dorados," which is still featured in many documentaries, films, and television features with revolutionary themes. Her brother, León, was the guitarrón player for the Mariachi México de Pépe Villa. Magdalena, who played both guitar and violin for this mariachi, is currently working as a violinist with a mariachi group in Iztapalapa, near Mexico City.
Isabel López Soto, born in 1941 in the state of Hidalgo, joined Mariachi Michoacano as a young girl in 1950. Her father was a professional musician, and she worked with him playing in the streets for tips. Like Magdalena, Isabel's musical roots are in the huasteco style. She appeared in the movie Escuela de Música with Pedro Infante in 1955.
Isabel, whose stage name is "La Rancherita Hidalguense," comes from a strong musical family. Her sister, Hilda López Soto, is also a pioneer female mariachi as a member of the Mariachi Las Coronelas. Isabel was later instrumental in the formation of several all-female mariachi groups during the 1970s, including Mariachi Las Alteñitas, which featured three of her four daughters (Aurora, Aída, and Raquel). In addition, her youngest daughter, Marta, plays guitarrón and her grandchildren are studying mariachi music. In this way, Isabel has truly continued a mariachi tradition with her family dynasty.
Two sisters, SanJuana (1941, violin and guitar) and María de Jesús (1943, violin), began with Mariachi Estrellas de México, and then went on to perform with Mariachi Las Coronelas (1961-1966). They both recall how their entire family loved to sing, especially their parents. SanJuana, first to join the professional mariachi group, traveled on extensive tours, which would leave younger sister María de Jesús at home crying, wanting to join her sister. Eventually, María de Jesús would join her sister in the group. Both sisters were selected to perform in the films Las Señoritas Vivanco (1959) and El Mariachi Canta (1963–see earlier image). In the second film, they were the only two trained musicians amongst stand-ins in an all-female mariachi group. SanJuana was a featured vocalist in a duet on the 78rpm recording by Mariachi Estrellas de México.
Finally, Feliza González Romero joined Mariachi Michoacano, later known as Estrellas de México, in 1953. She also performed with Mariachi Las Coronelas for a few years. She was first trained to play the guitar, but when one of her colleagues fell ill, she substituted for her on the vihuela. Feliza has a smaller hand, and so she actually preferred the vihuela, which has a neck that is shorter and narrower than the guitar. Although retired, she continued to play her vihuela and has joined the Mariachi Las Pioneras de México, reigniting her love and passion for mariachi performance in the company of her colleagues.
The rural mariachi style transformed to an urban mariachi style beginning in the 1930s in Mexico City, the center for the developing urban mariachi style. The 1950s and 1960s became a golden era for the music tradition and saw the emergence of professional all-female mariachi show groups. The groups worked hard, traveled extensively, had high media exposure, as well as national and international tours. Their work was equal to the male mariachis, but they were not equally recognized.
The women in these groups came from musical families, and became seasoned professional mariachis. Six decades later, the surviving pioneers, now in their late 60s and mid 70s, continue their commitment to the mariachi tradition with an incomparable passion for the music and its performance. These women worked hard and lived a hard life. There is a sense of pride that the sacrifices made by these first all-female groups in Mexico established a movement to inspire new all-female groups during the 70s, and later in the 90s.
I must admit that when I first went to Mexico City in 2007, I looked at the trip as a short vacation. Once I met with the pioneers, I became impressed with their stories and their talent. I felt a sense of obligation to document their histories and tell their stories; they are now my role models. With musical careers spanning over 60 years, it gives me a sense of pride that these women finally receive their long overdue recognition. Sadly, many of the original members of the first all-female groups have passed away, their personal memoirs lost forever. We can move forward by doing what we can to recognize these surviving ladies in tribute to all of Mexico's women mariachi pioneers.