Entry on the word
from The Latino Encyclopedia.
(New York: Marshall Cavendish Corp, 1996)
(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 Europe.
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
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
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 general disuse.
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 instrumentation.
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
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
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 borders.
Printed by permission of the
author by Mariachi Publishing Company, 1999-2003