For the 16th consecutive year, Mariachi Christmas rings in the holiday season in Popejoy Hall with Mariachi Aztlán and Ballet Folklórico Paso del Norte.
Musicologists and folklorists have debated the origin of the word mariachi for years. The most frequent explanation is that it is a variation of the French word mariage, meaning “wedding” or “marriage,” and comes from a time in the 1860s when Maximillian, a Frenchman, was Emperor of Mexico. Considered a doubtful explanation, linguists discredited the theory when scholars found a use of the word from a time that predated the French presence in Mexico.
Currently, the best opinion is that the word has indigenous roots. One theory is that it comes from the name of the wood used to make a dance platform. But whatever its true source, today the word has one meaning that is crystal clear: mariachi is one of the most exciting and enchanting musical ensembles found anywhere in the world.
Mariachi music was originally passed down aurally. Though each region of Mexico developed its own distinct sound, much of today’s mariachi music emerged during the 19th century from the state of Jalisco.
During that time, many mariachis were roaming laborers who often moved from one hacienda or estate to another. During the Mexican Revolution (1910-1920), many haciendas dismissed the mariachis, who wandered from town to town carrying news and singing corridos, or ballads, of heroes and enemies. Eventually, they began playing in small, local venues for tips.
Almost entirely unknown outside of its own region, mariachi music exploded in the 1930s when Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlán traveled outside of Jalisco to play in Mexico City. Impressed, President Lázaro Cárdenas invited the group to play at his inauguration and later asked them to accompany him during his 1936 campaign.
Mariachi and Film
Aided by the advent of radio, television, and movies, mariachi music became a definitive part of Mexican culture. Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlán appeared in over 200 films during the Golden Age of Mexican Cinema in the 1940s and 1950s.
Canciones de mi Padre
Mariachi music extended to a mainstream audience in the United States when, in 1987, singer Linda Ronstadt fulfilled her dream of making a record of Mexican songs. A hit with the American public, Canciones de Mi Padre increased the appreciation for mariachi music in the United States. The album became a multi-platinum hit, making it the best selling non-English language album at the time.
Because Mariachi began as informal folk music to accompany dance, early groups did not have uniforms. Occasionally, groups wore regional costumes, but by the 1930s, mariachis wore the traje de charro, the classic outfit of the Mexican cowboy. The history of the traje, or suit, can be traced back to the peasants of Salamanca and Andalucia, Spain, whose outfits consisted of brightly colored pants, shirt, jacket, boots and a wide-brimmed hat. Later, aristocratic families added colors and other adornments for special occasions.
Today, the traje de charro is usually black. There are two main types: one has bontonaduras or shiny metal buttons, and the second is adorned with greca, a Greek style embroidery. Some of the most ornate and expensive suits use both bontonaduras and greca.
Variations for Women
Male and female mariachis alike wear the traje de charro to perform, though women can choose a skirt that echoes the pants. For the Mexican Hat Dance, male dancers don the traje, while women wear a style of dress called china poblana, a festive, brightly sequined skirt and hand woven shawl. Women also attach large bunches of silk flowers to the crown of their heads where their hair has been drawn back from their faces.
Founded to promote Mexican folk music, Mariachi Aztlán highlights the culture of the Hispanic people for the benefit of the students and community of south Texas. The group travels extensively to create a bridge of cultural understanding between countries and peoples with their music. Since 1989, Mariachi Aztlán has traveled throughout the United States, Mexico, and Canada as ambassadors representing the beauty of Hispanic music and cultural traditions.
The group’s other accolades include performances with the Chicago Lyric Opera and winning Grand Champions at the Mariachi Spectacular de Albuquerque national competition. The mariachi also performed with the Houston Grand Opera, at the Hollywood Bowl, the Smithsonian Folklife Festival and at the Kennedy Center for Performing Arts in Washington D.C.
Ballet Folklórico Paso del Norte
Founded in 1978 as an affiliate of El Paso Community College, the troupe is now an independent non-profit. Ballet Folklórico Paso del Norte performed at many notable events including the Texas Sesquicentennial Celebration and the inauguration of the Texas Games. The company also performed at the Las Cruces International Mariachi Conference and shared the stage with artists like Linda Ronstadt, Mariachi Los Comperos de Nati Cano, Mariachi Cobre and Mariachi Reyna de Los Angeles.
A unique honor for an American company, the group performed for various Mexican governors and was the first non-Mexican company invited to the Instituto Mexicano Norteamericano de Relaciones Culturales in Mexico City, an educational institution that promotes relationships with English-speaking countries.