Entry on the word mariachi
from The Latino Encyclopedia.
(New York: Marshall Cavendish Corp, 1996)
Article by Jonathan D. Clark
(1) A specific type of Mexican musical
group or ensemble. (2) An individual musician in a mariachi group (synonym:
mariachero). (3) An adjective denoting a genre or style related to the
mariachi, e.g., mariachi music, mariachi trumpet. Since the 1930s, the
mariachi has been widely considered the quintessential Mexican folk-derived
musical ensemble, and has become an institution symbolic of Mexican music and
culture. Mariachi groups are currently found throughout the Americas and in
ORIGINS. Professional musicians accompanied Hernán Cortés
when he arrived in what is now Mexico in 1519. Among their instruments were
the harp and the vihuela, prototypes of those later used by the mariachi.
Natives, who had their own highly developed musical traditions, quickly
mastered European musical practices. With the importation of large numbers of
black slaves, African music was also brought to Mexico during the early
colonial period. Many regional traditions of mestizo folk music, including
that of the mariachi, resulted from the ensuing cultural and musical blending
of indigenous and foreign elements.
The mariachi is native to a region of western Mexico that includes what are
today the states of Jalisco, Nayarit, Zacatecas, Aguascalientes, Guanajuato,
Michoacan, and Colima; extending as far north as Sinaloa and Durango and as
far south as Guerrero. Despite frequent attempts to attribute it to a specific
state or town, the exact birthplace of the mariachi is unknown.
EARLY HISTORY. The early development of mestizo folk music in
Mexico is largely undocumented, making speculative any theories on the early
evolution of the mariachi. The earliest known incontrovertible reference to a
mariachi appears in a letter written by priest Cosme Santa Anna in 1852,
although the word can be found earlier as a place-name. Mariachis documented
during the second half of the nineteenth century in central western Mexico
were commonly associated with the rural fiesta or fandango,
and with the tarima or wooden platform upon which couples would dance
sones and jarabes, the two most important genres of the
early mariachi repertory [see related entries].
Early mariachis wore peasant garb, and had little concern for dressing alike.
After the Revolution of 1910, however, modest uniforms began to appear. When
for the first time mariachis could afford to outfit themselves elegantly, they
chose the suit of the horseman or traje de charro. The gala version
of this suit wom by contemporary mariachis-with its tightly-fitting ornamented
pants, short jacket, embroidered belt, boots, wide bow tie, and sombrero-was
once the attire of wealthy hacienda owners. [see charro).
ETYMOLOGY. The consensus of modern scholars is that the word mariachi
is indigenous to Mexico. The now-extinct Coca language of central Jalisco is
that most frequently cited as its probable source. Legend erroneously
attributes the word to the French Intervention of the 1860s, explaining it as
a corruption of the French word mariage, and citing a similarity
between mariachi (or its archaic variant, mariache) and the
French word for wedding. Historical documents prove that both the word mariachi
and the ensemble it designates pre-date the French occupation of Mexico,
making any similarity with the French word a phonetic coincidence.
URBANIZATION. While its roots are rural, the contemporary
mariachi is an urban phenomenon associated with post-revolutionary Mexico
City. It was in that nation's capital and principal metropolis that the urban
mariachi was born and where most of its development took place. Vestiges of
earlier types of mariachis may still be found in rural Mexico, but the urban
mariachi has been the dominant model since the 1930s.
In 1920, Cirilo Marmolejo moved his group from Tecolotlán, Jalisco to Mexico
City, becoming the first mariachi to establish itself permanently in the
capital. In 1923, the cantina Salón Tenampa opened on what is now Plaza
Garibaldi, where the mariachis of Concho Andrade and Cirilo Marmolejo
performed. The Tenampa soon became Mexico City's center of mariachi activity
and attracted other groups from rural areas to that plaza.
Although mariachis had performed for official functions under Porfirio Diaz in
1905 and in 1907, it was not until after the Revolution of 1910 that the
mariachi became widely adopted as a symbol of nationalism. Since Alvaro Obregón's
administration (1920-1924), post-revolutionary Mexican presidents have used
mariachi music for political events, with Lázaro Cárdenas being the first to
officially subsidize it during his term (1934-1940).
The role of the media was crucial to the popularization of the mariachi.
During the 1930s, radio, cinema, and the phonograph came of age in Mexico,
launching what had previously been a rural, regional music to national and
international prominence. The principal role of the mariachi in the media
became that of accompanying leading vocalists of the ranchera
(country) genre, Mexico's most popular nationalistic musical expression.
INSTRUMENTATION. At the turn of the century, a typical
mariachi consisted of four musicians. While precise instrumentation could vary
with each group, regional tendencies existed. The two most prominent mariachi
regions were that of central Jalisco, which preferred two violins, vihuela
(a small, guitar-like instrument with a convex back and five strings), and guitarrón
(a large, six-string bass version of the vihuela); and that of southern
Jalisco and Michoacán, which preferred two violins, harp, and guitarra de
golpe (the original mariachi guitar).
After the Revolution of 1910, mariachi groups tended to grow in size.
Instruments previously associated with specific regional traditions were
combined, and existing instruments were doubled. Following a period of
experimentation, the instrumentation of the urban mariachi became
standardized. The modern classical guitar was adopted, and the vihuela and the
guitarrón were retained, while the guitarra de golpe and the harp fell into
In the early 1900s, wind instruments were frequently added to the
traditionally all-string ensemble. By the 1920s, mariachis in different parts
of Mexico were using the cornet. In the 1930s, however, the trumpet had
replaced the cornet and had gained a permanent foothold in the mariachi; by
the 1940s, the trumpet had become a mariachi institution. The two-trumpet
combination popularized by Mariachi Mexico de Pepe Villa in the early 1950s is
the most recent innovation to take place in the standard mariachi
The standard contemporary instrumentation for a full mariachi is two trumpets,
three or more violins, a vihuela, a guitar, and a guitarrón. An additional
guitar or trumpet is sometimes added, and the basic ensemble is often reduced
for economic reasons. All members may sing.
MARIACHI VARGAS. The most important group in the history of
mariachi music is Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlán, founded in 1898 by Gaspar
Vargas in Tecalitlán, Jalisco. In the 1930s, its leadership was taken over by
his son, Silvestre Vargas, considered the greatest mariachi organizer and
visionary of all time. In 1934, the group moved permanently to Mexico City,
where it played a leading role in the evolution of the mariachi. The majority
of influential musicians in the genre have passed through its ranks, including
arranger Rubén Fuentes and trumpet player Miguel Martinez. Since the 1940s,
Mariachi Vargas has been the model ensemble for the urban mariachi tradition,
in which its trajectory and influence are without parallel.
MARIACHI MUSIC IN THE UNITED STATES. Mariachi music has
become deeply rooted in the United States, where it has taken on unique
characteristics and even influenced its Mexican counterpart. During the late
1950s and early 1960s, a number of organized mariachi groups immigrated to Los
Angeles, an urban area that has in many ways become to the United States what
Mexico City is to Mexico as an urban Mecca of mariachi music. In 1961, Nati
Cano organized Los Camperos, which became the best-known U.S. mariachi and the
country's pioneer group in popularizing this music among non-Hispanics. In
1969, Los Camperos opened La Fonda restaurant in Los Angeles, the world's
first venue designed to showcase a mariachi. Other U.S. groups followed suit,
and eventually this concept was adopted in Mexico.
Mariachi Uclatlán, founded in 1961 at the University of California at Los
Angeles Institute of Ethnomusicology, pioneered the academic mariachi
tradition, and today educational institutions throughout the Southwest offer
classes in mariachi music. Mariachi Cobre, founded in Tucson, Arizona in 1971,
was the first prominent Mexican-American mariachi group.
In 1979, a U.S. mariachi movement was born at the First international Mariachi
Conference held in San Antonio, Texas. Since then, mariachi festivals and
conferences have proliferated in the United States; Mexico celebrated its
first international festival in 1994. Linda Ronstadt's 1987 album, Canciones
de mi padre, heralded the creation of a new audience for mariachi music
among non-Hispanics. While Ronstadt is a traditionalist, mariachis such as Sol
de Mexico in Los Angeles and Campanas de America in San Antonio seek
innovation, combining other musical styles with that of the mariachi.
CONCLUSION. Mariachi music reached its peak in popularity
during the 1950s and 1960s. Since then, it has increasingly become a nostalgia
genre, marginalized by the media that initially catapulted it to fame. With
the exception of isolated attempts to infuse new vitality into the tradition
from outside sources, relatively little new mariachi music is composed or
performed today. Nevertheless, the mariachi remains in demand for social
functions in Mexican and Mexican-American communities, where it has become a
cultural inheritance. The recent revival in the United States has given new
life to the mariachi, whose appeal transcends ethnic groups and national
permission of the author by Mariachi Publishing Company, 1999-2006