Laura Sobrino will not allow herself to be
late. Too many kids at an East Los Angeles music school are depending on
her master violin lessons. So, from behind the wheel of her Dodge Caravan,
she zigzags across three lanes of traffic and eases onto another freeway
interchange, clocking 72 m.p.h.
Sobrino drives the way she plays her
violin: con mucho gusto.
That's the way of El Mariachi-or in her case-La Mujer
As director of the country's first all-female
professional show group, Mariachi Reyna de Los Angeles, Sobrino is proving
that women can be a vital force in a profession dominated by hombres.
She and her dozen musicians are on the fast track,
attracting huge audiences and getting standing ovations everywhere they
perform, from the Orange County Fair to the Hollywood Bowl's Mariachi
Invitations from across the country are pouring in. The
women-with help from their founder, Jose Hernandez, leader of his own
group, Mariachi Sol de Mexico-have laid down five tracks for an album. A
record company is hot to sign them. And a Spanish-language television
station is wooing Sobrino to co-host a weekly Mexican music fest.
All this attention for a woman who never wanted to play
violin in the first place. Her heart was set on the clarinet. But her
mother won out and unknowingly set Sobrino on the road to making mariachi
Sobrino admits that being a Latina in a macho mariachi
mundo is exactly what propels her to push harder, talk faster, stay a step
ahead, stand tough, and on occasion-as on this particular day-drive like
"Again and again she has heard the same refrain:
"You have no place here. Your place is having babies."
She and husband, Dan, a pianist and guitarist, have two,
But with an ethnomusicology degree from UC Santa Cruz, a
master teacher certification from the National Endowment for the Arts, a
job giving mariachi lessons for the Mariachi Heritage Society, a
home-based business called Mariachi Publishing Co., and spot playing with
her husband's group, Mariachi Universal, Sobrino is not about to be told,
In fact, her dear friend Hernandez has always said yes.
Known by all as maestro, Hernandez is the man behind the
Reynas, which means queens. He founded the group less than two years ago
after his troupe shared the stage with Mariachi Las Perlitas Tapatías from
Guadalajara, Mexico's only all-female show group.
Enter Laura Sobrino, a statuesque 6-foot-1inch,
brown-eyed, dark-haired, take-charge beauty- a dead ringer for Lynda
Carter's Wonder Woman.
"I called Laura and told her about my concept. I
knew there were enough female musicians to do it," recalls Hernandez,
who relied on Sobrino to contact women and audition them. The group has
seven violins, two trumpets, a harp, an acoustic guitar, a guitarrón (a
portable acoustic bass, indigenous to Mexico) and a vihuela, a small
rhythm acoustic guitar. And everyone sings.
"I wanted the group to be a show group."
He also wanted his friend, whom he met when both played
with Mariachi Los Galleros de Pedro Rey, to act as conductor.
"She is aggressive. She was always around men
players. She is the oldest, is responsible and it is her nature to be a
caring person. I didn't have any second thoughts about anybody else but
her to be the chief. She takes charge."
With his behind-the-scenes creative work writing the
musical arrangements for the group and Sobrino in control, Hernandez says
he knew the women-several of whom live out of town-would take mariachi by
its strings and play with ganas, or determination.
"With Laura there, these girls have made my musical
dreams come true. They sound like angels."
In a short time, they have earned the respect of their
male peers, Hernandez says. "I didn't want guys to say, 'They play
like girls.' Now the guys from other groups come up to me and say they
can't get over how these girls sound. They go, 'If you close your eyes
they sound just like guys'".
Talk like that pleases Sobrino. Her eyes, green this day
because of contacts she uses when performing, sparkle like emeralds.
Conversation about music-and its power, passion and
poetry-reminds her of a childhood in Watsonville, in the Salinas Valley,
where music always filled the house in which her parents still reside.
A favorite uncle gave her an accordion. But it was way
too heavy for her to hold. Still, she held onto the dream of one day
playing an instrument.
At age 8, Laura came home from school with a permission
slip to take a music class. When she told her mother she wanted to play
the clarinet like all her friends, her mother refused to sign. "She
said, 'No way, mija [my daughter]. You're going to play the violin. And
the day you play 'Ave Maria' for me, well, if you don't like the violin
after that, you can play whatever you want.'"
The day that she picked up the violin "I knew it
was over. I knew there was no other instrument for me."
And she made her mother a promesa , or promise.
Five years ago, Sobrino's 32-year-old promise was
fulfilled on a Thanksgiving Day. "After the turkey, I said, 'Mom, I
made you a promise a long time ago that I never kept and I want to keep it
With Dan at the piano and Laura on the violin, the two
played "Ave Maria." There wasn't a dry eye in the house.
"Mom" Sobrino recalls telling her mother, her voice choked with
emotion, "I love you and I love the violin."
Eleanor Pierce, Laura's first music teacher, a kind but
stern woman, must have sensed Laura's love for the violin. Pierce gave her
daily lessons after school up through the eighth grade, delivering the
student to her parents' front door after every session, something she did
only for Laura.
"She gave me her heart and taught me how to love
music," Sobrino says.
Pierce also was the first person to tell Sobrino that
she was college material. "She said, 'You have enough talent, I know
I can get you a scholarship.' So in my mind I was going to college to
become a music teacher just like her." But during her first year of
college at UC Santa Cruz, Sobrino discovered a part of her that had
nothing to do with being a classically trained violinist. It had to do with
her identity as a Mexican American during the height of the Chicano
movimiento . Chicano students around her spoke Spanish, a language she
didn't know. As a high-schooler in Watsonville she and brother Mario had
been in the minority, surrounded by surfer types.
She could never understand, Sobrino says, ". . .why
I was so different from everybody else or why I was never invited to
parties, why I always felt this barrier."
At first, she thought it was because she was so tall.
"Later on, I realized why: because I was Mexican. And I didn't even
know what Mexican meant."
I took a trip to Mexico to find out.
She put college on hold, wrote to her father's relatives
in his native Mexico City, and began a journey of discovering her roots,
her culture, herself.
Along the way, she also discovered musica ranchera ,
popular Mexican music. During a visit from her parents, Alfonso and Jovita,
she took them to Garibaldi Plaza, a world-famous mariachis square in
Mexico City where they were serenaded. Unknowingly, the mariachi seed had
After a year in Mexico City, Sobrino returned to UC
Santa Cruz. She missed Mexico and began studying Mexican music including
mariachi, which became her specialty to fill the void. She soon joined a
student show group.
For her parents and for Pierce, whom Sobrino had not
seen since the eighth grade, she performed a senior project of Huasteca,
or Huastec Indian music, that relies heavily on the violin; Norteño, a
type of music played on the accordion, and Jarocho, a Vera Cruz style that
showcases the harp, and mariachi.
She presented Pierce with a dozen roses. "Next to
my parents I wanted to give special thanks to her."
But playing with the campus group didn't satisfy Sobrino's musical appetite for mariachi. She had hoped "to become
complete" as a mariachi after researching her senior thesis on the
mariachi violin style. In 1978 while in Los Angeles to work on her paper,
she was hired by Mariachi Uclatlán, a UCLA student group that had just
The plan was to stay on for three months, enough time to
finish the report. But three months turned into three years of playing
with other groups, including Los Galleros, "where I really came to
understand the mariachi style."
During a performance with that group, Sobrino had her
"Oh my God, I understand it now!", she blurted
out. "Everybody started laughing at me. I went, 'Uh-oh!', and, of
course, everybody heard that, too."
As soon as she left the stage, Sobrino began scribbling
down her feelings: Mariachi was about connecting with her culture, about
never letting go of tradition, about singing the words of unrequited love
not just with her voice but with the sweet string of her violin.
It was also about a profession filled with sacrifice and
struggle, and one that tested her stamina.
Back then-and later as the only woman performing with
Hernandez's own Mariachi Sol de Mexico, long considered Southern
California's premier group-she played six nights a week, usually getting
home at 3 a.m. She would sleep for three hours, wake up at 6 a.m. to make
a sound check for gigs all day Saturday that usually went until 2 a.m.
Sunday. Then there was Sunday Mass to perform at, followed by a brunch at
a private party.
And she had to know at least 200 songs.
"The leader of the group would say, 'Now let me see
if you can play this tune in first violin. Now play it in second violin.
Now third violin.' I soon learned that mariachis have to be able to
Everybody thought she was crazy to play in bars till 2
am, stroll in restaurants, appear at weddings, funerals, baptisms,
birthdays and stand outside strangers' windows at the crack of dawn on
Mother's Day. Once she played for two hours for a man who wanted to win
back his ex-girlfriend who had her new boyfriend in the house and an angry
mother standing in the living room while she tried to decide which man to
keep. She returned to her ex.
"Maybe it just depends on your survival
nature," Sobrino says about the stamina that has pulled her
through some tough times.
At 17, Sobrino underwent a thyroidectomy after enduring
three years of what she calls "hyper-hyper-hyperthyroidism," a
rare condition for a teen-ager. She lost most of her hair and a life-threatening
amount of weight before doctors operated. For three days she remain in
intensive care. "They didn't know if I was going to survive."
Then, tow years ago at age 38, a pregnant Sobrino was
told she had a malignant melanoma.
"Thank God I didn't really know what a melanoma was
because I think I would have freaked out," she says. After surgery,
she is cancer-free.
Reflecting on her illnesses, Sobrino says, "I'm
just lucky. A lot of people aren't that lucky." She pauses.
"Maybe, my love for playing music is what saved me. I know I've
survived for a reason. Maybe I'm here to help pave the way for
Many of her mariachi group members believe so.
"She has inspired me to keep working at it no
matter what some people, especially what some men might think about us,
like they are better and that we shouldn't be in this profession,"
says trumpeter Griselda Burruel, 20, of Tucson. "She tells us to keep
our dream alive. She has passion. She's a compañera [friend]."
Esperanza Donlucas, also a 20-year-old trumpeter from
Los Angeles, says she admires Sobrino's ability to teach both discipline
and unity partly through the prayer circle she convenes before each
"She makes our worries go away, our egos go away.
She is the leader, but in her prayer she says, 'We are just one group, all
united.' I always tell her that everything she is comes from her smile.
She motivates me just by her smile. She's a compañera."
As the groups only Anglo member, violinist Cindy Reifler,
35, of Santa Cruz, has earned the nickname La Guera, or the blond one.
Sobrino taught Reifler her first song, "El Son de La Negra."
"I have nothing but respetos para Laura . Hers is
not an easy job to do, dealing with 13 personalities, many of them young
and green even though they are gifted. And she has to keep a certain
distance from everybody to be able to stay in control."
And again, comes the seal of approval: "She's a compañera."
To the group's youngest member, including 15-year-old
Celia Leyva, an 11th-grader at Long Beach Polytechnic High School, Sobrino
is simply a role model.
"I admire her because she is a girl mariachi,"
says Celia, a violinist who started playing at age 3 and took lessons from
Sobrino at the Los Angeles Music and Arts School. "Laura has made it
one step easier for all women to break into the field."
For certain, doors are opening-though slowly-for other
women because of the Reynas' influence.
Recently, Sobrino received a call from a San Fernando
Valley high school that formed an all-female group. More young girls are
signing up for Mariachi Heritage Society lessons. And with their every
performance, the Reynas have found that the mariachi men have become more
accepting of the female factor.
"We are bringing a new perspective to the
music," Sobrino says. "A new direction. A new future. I think
when people come to our shows they say, 'Oh boy, we're going to see a
bunch of pretty women and hopefully they'll do something cute.' They don't
think of us as mariachis. Then after a show they say, 'You are
mariachis!" And I say, 'Yes, we are.'"
She pauses. Her eyes sparkle. Her smile widens.
Says la compañera : "I am a mariachi. Mariachi
es mi vida."
Mariachi is her life.
Bio: Laura Garciacano Sobrino
Background: Born in Watsonville, California, lives in
Family: Married to Dan Sobrino for five years. The
couple have a 3-year-old daughter, Nicte, and a 2-year-old son, Nazul.
Passions: Spending time with her children every morning
at the park and the library. When she's not with her own kids, Sobrino
loves teaching youngsters the mariachi style of music through the Mariachi
Heritage Society's youth program at the Los Angeles Music and Art School
in East L.A., North Ranchito Elementary School in Pico Rivera, Magnolia
Elementary in Los Angeles and Maxwell Elementary in Duarte.
Why she loves mariachi: "When mariachi music starts
the first thing you year is the people doing their gritos (shouts). They
immediately become connected to you.... The more the audience connects
with me the more I can give. That's what moves me."
On respect for mariachi music: "I remember one time
I went to a home to play at 4 am on Mother's Day. The house was just one
big room and a dirt floor. They wanted us to play for one hour. They fed
us tamales and asked us if we wanted some tequila, whatever we wanted
before even playing one note. They treated us like royalty. They were poor
but they paid for mariachis."
On leading 12 women: "For a while there were some
jealousies because one girl was singing more that another or because
somebody was featured more on her instrument. Finally, I said, 'Look, you
know we're starting to be at the musical level wehere we want to be. And
the only way the God is going to allow us to take it further is if you
guys just eliminate all the personal problems. The honeymoon is over,
ladies. We've got to work!"