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Memoirs of the Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlán

Fragments of My Autobiography

By Nicolás Torres Vásquez

Chapter 1: Tecalitlán

I was born in Tecalitlán, Jalisco into a poor, large family on March 22, 1910. My parents were Altagracia Vásquez and Teófilo Torres. My father was a native of Tecalitlán, and my mother from Aguijillo, Jalisco. In those days, a fifth grade education was the highest Tecalitlán offered. I only finished the third grade. There were several barbers in my family, including my father. I was the first musician.

I would like to say something about my beloved Tecalitlán, a village blessed by God. I say this for several reasons. We have a pleasant climate. Two volcanoes are located at a short distance from the village. One is snow-capped and the other is still active. They are the most benevolent volcanoes in the world since they have never harmed any of us. There is yet another reason. Across from Tecalitlán there is a cross located on the mountain called, "El Cerrito de La Santa Cruz," which we feel protects us from the frightening hurricanes that upon approach change into rain.

Those were the days of the "cristero" revolution in Mexico, difficult times for the entire country, particularly for the village of Tecalitlán. There was much confusion and danger for those families trying to live in peace. On occasions there were gun battles between the government and the "cristeros," resulting in casualties. But to me, the bad times didn't seem so important. After all, children don't make revolutions!

What I remember seeing were small groups of two or three musicians playing mariachi music. Those small groups were common, perhaps because of the hard times. Back in those years, around 1926, the mariachis entertained the people and, for a moment, they would forget about the danger.

Money was scarce. Not even the banks were doing much business! A system existed, called "trueque," a way of spending less money by exchanging goods; the butcher, the milkman, the tailor, and the vegetable vendor, etc., used this system. Everyone made a mutually agreeable exchange. I realized that even the musicians had to accept this form of exchange.

When I was still a boy, I would get together with my friends. We enjoyed playing with toys which could make a sound, and if possible, play a tune. I believe the same happened to Silvestre Vargas. He was nine years older than I.

I had the good fortune to meet one of the first musicians to play with the Mariachi Vargas. His name was Trinidad Olivera. I was about fourteen years old when he spotted me playing with a friend. My friend played the guitar and I the mandolin.

Upon seeing the instruments, he asked me, "How would you like to learn to play the violin?" I answered, "I don't have one." And he said, "If you want, I'll lend you one of mine, and if you're willing I'll wait for you where I rehearse."

When we began the lesson he told me, "You are going to play second violin, and I'll show you how to play it." We continued the lessons with the best of intentions. Six weeks later, he took me on my first job, where he was paid $4.50 pesos for three and a half hours of music. I have deep gratitude to Trinidad, better known by his nickname "El Potrillo," my first teacher.

Around 1929-30, an orchestra of approximately six musicians came to Tecalitlán. Two brothers played in this group, Rafael and Jerónimo Quintero. Rafael played the violin and Jerónimo the guitar. Later, the Quintero family moved to Tecalitlán and we became good friends. One day one of them said to me, "Let's go rehearse, you, my brother and I." I gladly accepted their invitation, and in one month we began playing as a trio.

Towards the end of the 1920's it appeared that better times were ahead. The farmers began working the land more, the sugar cane plantations hired more workers, and even the mariachi groups became larger as the economic situation improved.

Chapter 2: Mariachi Vargas

The best mariachi in Tecalitlán was that of the Vargas family, father and son. When I met them the group had four musicians: Manuel Mendoza, harp; Gaspar Vargas, guitarra de golpe; Silvestre Vargas, first violin; and Trinidad Olivera, second violin. They played all kinds of music: polkas, waltzes, corridos, popular songs, not to mention those sones which they played magnificently. The playing style of Manuel Mendoza and Gaspar Vargas was admired by all. Some of the songs they played back then were: "Las Perlitas," "Desengaño," "La Adelita," "La Chancla," "Jarabe Ranchero," and "El Cihualteco."

In 1928 I recall my teacher Trinidad telling me he had an engagement to play at the "La Cañada" sugar cane plantation. That was the first time I played with the Mariachi Vargas. Shortly afterwards we played together more often. I became the fifth member of the group. We were now three violins, two firsts and me on second.

From 1928-1930 we traveled the nearby cities of Tuxpan, Tamazula, Ciudad Guzmán, and the capital of Colima. When the religious festivities in Ciudad Guzmán finished, the festivities in Colima would commence. We did that for two or three years.

In 1932, a man by the name of Mariano Escobedo hired the Mariachi Vargas to play an extended engagement in Tijuana, Baja California. Manuel Mendoza didn't want to go with us due to his age. Because of that, we invited Francisco Alvarez, a harpist from Tamazula.

We left Manzanillo on a boat headed for the port of Ensenada. For all of us the trip was a novelty because we had never traveled by boat. Some of the members experienced seasickness on the journey. Arriving in Ensenada we finished the journey on land to the city of Tijuana. The mariachi performed in a minstrel bar there, owned by Mr. Escobedo. I believe it was the first time they had seen a mariachi in Tijuana, and they liked us.

The uniform we took to Tijuana was made of a white cotton sack cloth, with a red sash tied around the waist, and straw sombreros. To improvise a second uniform, we brought a guayabera with simple embroidery. We tied a scarf around the neck with both uniforms.

We returned home by land via the Sonora desert, heading towards the city of Tepic, Nayarit in one of the first vehicles providing that service.

Shortly after our return, we learned that our companion, Francisco Alvarez, had been murdered in Tamazula. We had a commitment to perform in Guadalajara and we were without a harpist. They spoke with Manuel Mendoza, who agreed to go, but stated clearly, "I don't want to continue playing."

We continued rehearsing because the Quintero brothers had joined the group. They were already familiar with much of our repertory. Undoubtedly, they were a positive addition to the group.

The day of our engagement in Guadalajara arrived. It was a contest held in October 1933 in Agua Azúl. A wooden platform was set up for the mariachi groups who were competing. When the hour of the contest arrived, we noticed that the other mariachis were wearing elegant charro uniforms, and we were sure that they would take first place. But that was not the case. We took first place. One of the sones we performed says, "Listen, listen everyone, listen to the train roll, the one that takes men to the ocean shores."

When we returned from Guadalajara to Tecalitlán, Manuel Mendoza kept his promise. None of us wanted to see him leave. It was necessary to look for another harpist, so we invited José Mendoza of Zapotiltic. He was of no relation to the other Mendoza.

The mayor of Tecalitlán, Arturo de la Mora, was influential in our competing in the Guadalajara contest. Furthermore, he suggested that we travel to the nation's capital to play "our ace card." In a group meeting we agreed to travel to the capital and that Silvestre Vargas would be the group representative.

We hadn't rehearsed for long with the newest members, José Mendoza and violinist Santiago Torres. We left by train for Mexico City in November 1933.

Chapter 3: Mexico City

In Mexico City the Flores family met us at the train station, and took us to the "Los Doctores" neighborhood where they already secured a place for us to stay. They introduced us to a young singer named Pepe Gutiérrez who took us to the home of a female singer who sang with him. Her name was Lucha Reyes. Later we would accompany both of them in performances and recordings. They both enjoyed mariachi music.

We went to Garibaldi Square to get to know the "Tenampa" bar and to see for ourselves how the mariachis worked there, but we never wound up playing there. The first places we played at in Mexico City were houses of prostitution. On weekends we played in a bar across from the bullring near the corner of Oaxaca and Valladolid streets.

In 1934, a festivities committee was formed in the Aberlardo Rodríguez market. The main idea was to organize a mariachi contest. We were contestants. it was something similar to the contest that we performed for in Guadalajara, and again the Mariachi Vargas took first place.

The harpist, José Mendoza, didn't play with us for very long. He went back to his hometown, and shortly afterwards, my teacher Trinidad Olivera followed suit.

The Melecio Villa family, originally from Zapotiltic, Jalisco, was now living in Mexico City. They had two sons: Ernesto, who played harp, and José, who played vihuela. Ernesto was invited to join Mariachi Vargas in 1935. His brother joined the group about a year after. Years later he would form the "Mariachi México de Pepe Villa." Around the same time, Eliseo Camarena, guitarrón player, also became a member of the Mariachi Vargas.

The first radio station we played for was XEB. We did fifteen-minute programs twice a week. Later, we secured a contract to play programs of the same length on XEW. It was the best of Mexico. There we accompanied singers like Guadalupe "La Chinaca," the "Las Cantadoras del Bajío" duet, Pepe Gutiérrez, and composers Felipe Bermejo and Pepe Guízar, amongst others.

In 1937, maestro Tata Nacho included us in a movie for which he composed the music. The name of the film was, "Así Es Mi Tierra," and was the first movie that the Mariachi Vargas appeared in.

More than one person advised us to go see the President of Mexico, General Lázaro Cárdenas, to ask if he could get us work with a government organization. To our good fortune, he received us personally, and in his humane manner, commissioned us to the chief of police. He gave us a job with the police department of Mexico City. The police chief was Vicente González and he put us under the command of maestro Miguel Lerdo de Tejada, director of the "Orquesta Típica de la Ciudad de México."

As employees of the police department, our job was to perform "servicios," playing primarily at the homes of government officials. The salary we earned was not enough to live on, but it kept us going.

The discipline in the police department was severe. Silvestre Vargas let us know that we were not going to be allowed to miss work, even if we were sick. The group did not agree with this policy. Furthermore, Silvestre Vargas refused to share the tips with the rest of the members of the group, bringing about the break-up of the original Mariachi Vargas around mid-1939. Later I learned that some of those same members returned to the group, but I never played again with with Mariachi Vargas.

In this work I have limited myself to speak only about the events that I, myself, experienced between the years of 1926-1939. The person who should have written the complete history of the Mariachi Vargas was Silvestre Vargas, but he never did. This is what inspired me to write this autobiography.

Nicolás Torres Vásquez
Montebello, CA
March 1991

For more information:
Jon Clark
Laura Sobrino