A Binational Cultural Heritage

Arts and Media April 2022 PREMIUM
The History of Mariachi Music

This three-part series of articles explores the history of Mariachi music – an unmistakable symbol of Mexican and Mexican American identity, which has been declared Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO. How has Mariachi music evolved from a folkloric expression born in North-Western rural Mexico around the late 18th century to a globally recognized musical phenomenon? In the January issue of HO, the first part of this series explored the initial development of Mariachi music as a form of popular culture that was diverse and fluid, evolving from a long process of constant, spontaneous adaptation, particularly as it migrated from rural to urban areas.

Although it began as a folkloric expression, Mariachi music in its current form is also a cultural “emblem,” a cohesive genre that is the result of very concrete historical efforts, in both Mexico and the United States, to mold this popular musical expression into a symbol of national or ethnic unity and pride. This second part of the series delves into the emblematic consolidation of Mariachi music in the early and mid-20th century, which was achieved through specific institutions, driven to a large extent by both political and commercial considerations.

Formation of a cultural symbol: the Mexican post-revolutionary period and the U.S. civil rights era

In Mexico, the first post-revolutionary governments were eager to unify the country after years of strife and division, and to create a new national ethos based on the dignification of popular mestizo and indigenous culture rather than on the glorification of foreign, elite culture. In addition, the legitimacy of the ruling revolutionary party was strengthened by recognizing and co-opting key elements of the rural, popular culture shared by its base, including Mariachi music. In the 1920s, powerful members of Congress from the state of Jalisco were instrumental in bringing Mariachi groups to Mexico City to play at political events; these groups were recorded on national radio for the first time, thus ensuring that Mariachi became associated primarily with Jalisco.1 In the 1930s, President Cárdenas provided state patronage to the Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlán to play at all official events (cementing the fame of this group up to today).2

During this period, the Ministry of Education launched a massive effort to bring “culture and progress” to the rural masses through Cultural Missions that trained teachers and provided other forms of assistance. These missions included music teachers, who were instrumental in spreading Mariachi music to regions where it had previously not been played.3 The popular Jarabe Tapatío was also standardized, so that it could be taught in all public schools and turned into a cornerstone of Mexican culture.4

The post-revolutionary film, radio and record industries played a key role in defining and propagating a new, more homogenous form of Mariachi music. The “golden age of cinema” (1930s to 1950s) promoted a nationalist image of Mexico that drew on idealized images of rural life, best represented by the proud and courageous image of the charro (cowboy) from Western Mexico. Stars such as Jorge Negrete and Pedro Infante immortalized the image of the “charro cantor” (singing cowboy). These singers were necessarily accompanied by a Mariachi group, which now played ranchera (country) songs that were specifically written for them by urban composers. Manuel Esperón and Ernesto Cortázar are the most famous of these, who established a new genre of rancheras with songs for classic films such as Allá en el Rancho Grande and Ay, Jalisco no te rajes! These songs struck a chord with the urban population that still had rural roots, instilling pride in their traditions, and also with the rural masses, who saw these modified songs as a way of accessing “modern,” urban culture.5

The radio station XEW made live recordings of the new popular film stars and mariachi, and copies of these were sold by record companies all over Mexico and the Southwestern United States. Thus, a powerful nexus was created between film, radio and record companies, all of which insisted on a homogenous style of music, which followed certain technical guidelines and relied on written sheet music (rather than the previous spontaneous oral tradition), in order to keep replicating songs and records that were commercially successful. In Jauregui’s words, “Mariachi music passed from popular culture (regional, anonymous) to the culture of the masses, which belongs to a consumer society (commercialized, played by certain authors).” 6

Thus, from the 1930s to the 1960s the Mexican state, together with powerful commercial production companies, were instrumental in defining Mariachi music as a symbol of national pride and identity. While in Mexico this process can be said to have been initiated “from above” – patronized by the government to a large extent – in the U.S. the conscious promotion of Mariachi music as a cultural emblem, which began occurring in the 1950s and 1960s, was a biproduct of grassroots political movements “from below” that were fighting for the recognition of Mexican-American civil rights and the inclusion of their culture in the public sphere.   

The wave of immigration from rural Northern and Western Mexico to the U.S. in the 1930s and during the Bracero Program of WWII led to a greater presence of Mexicans in the American Southwest. Discrimination and segregation of Mexican-Americans, as well as exploitation of farm workers, led to the rise of the Chicano movement in the late 1950s and 1960s, which in turn led to demands for better public education, including bilingual education.7 In this context, South Texas – a heavily Mexican-American area that had already been learning Mariachi music through local church groups for many years – became a leader in promoting Mariachi education in public schools as part of an overall effort to recognize Mexican-American culture, particularly after the Texas Bilingual Education Act was passed in 1968. Due to the efforts of Belle Ortiz, the San Antonio Unified School District began offering Mariachi courses in the early 1970s.8

Los Angeles emerged as the center of Mariachi music from the early 1960s, when Mariachi Los Camperos de Nati Cano was created and later became the most well-known U.S. Mariachi. UCLA was a key actor in the movement to recuperate and dignify Mexican American cultural roots, and was a pioneer in promoting Mariachi education: it formed the first University-based Mariachi group (Mariachi Uclatlán) in 1961, and the first formal Mariachi class was introduced in the UCLA Ethnomusicology Department in 1964. The first Mariachi courses in public schools were taught by a member of UCLA’s Mariachi Uclatlán in some L.A. schools in the late 1960s. Members of the UCLA Mariachi also participated with the United Farm Workers (led by Cesar Chavez), playing at rallies and strikes to motivate the workers.9

Other pioneering Mexican American mariachi groups were created in Arizona (Mariachi Cobre in 1971) and at Texas A & M University Kingsville (Mariachi Javelina, in the early 1970s). The first International Mariachi Conference in the world was held in San Antonio in 1979 (long before the first Mexican one, in 1994).10 Since the 1970s, a large number of U.S. universities, particularly in the Southwest, have had their own nationally and internationally recognized Mariachi ensembles.

In the U.S., the demographic growth of the Mexican American community from the 1930s to the 1970s, together with concerted efforts to institutionalize the transmission of Mariachi music have had an important effect on its symbolic significance for Mexican Americans, who see it as a tangible, well recognized aspect of their identity and cultural pride. Institutionalization has had a key effect on the spread of Mariachi music: by including it in local public schools and in universities, it has become known to students of all social classes and ethnicities, and it is played within a framework of more formal musical training.

Thus, from the colonial period to the mid-20th century, two key overlapping processes  – one spontaneous and the other consciously guided, one informal and the other institutionalized – are at the root of Mariachi music’s history, leading to its consolidation as a rich musical genre and as a symbol of national or ethnic identity.

In a forthcoming issue of HO, the third part of this historical overview will explore the processes of multiethnic inclusion, musical diversification and geographic expansion that have transformed contemporary Mariachi music into a global phenomenon.

1. Jesús Jáuregui, “El Mariachi: Símbolo Musical de México”, Música Oral del Sur,No.9, 2012,p. 226.

2. Daniel Sheehy, “Mexican Mariachi Music: Made in the USA”, in Kipp Lornell and Anne K. Rasmussen, The Music of Multicultural America,University Press of Mississippi, 2016,p. 144.

3. Jorge Amós Martínez Ayala, “¿De Cocula es el mariachi?... Mitos sobre el mariachi. Una breve revisión historiográfica y una propuesta desmitificadora”, p. 5. Undated document providedby Lucas Hernández Bico, expert in traditional Mexican music and Musical Programing Director at Instituto Mexicano de la Radio (IMER).

4. Sheehy, op. cit., p. 144.

5. Jauregui, op. cit., p. 229. Sheehy describes this process as follows:“a mutually reinforcing cycle arose, in which rural tastes influenced the popular media, and then in turn were influenced by popular creations appealing to those tastes”.Sheehy,op. cit.,p. 146.

6. Jauregui, op. cit., p. 229.

7. Sheehy, op. cit., p.151.

8. “Mariachi Music in the U.S.”, at: Mariachi Music in the U.S. -Mariachi Music

9. Letisia Marquez, “The Magic of Mariachi”, UCLA Magazine, October 1, 2013, at: The Magic of Mariachi | UCLA

10. “Mariachi Music in the U.S.”,op.cit.

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