Picture a mariachi band. You probably think of older men dressed in fancy clothes, playing their instruments and singing in a restaurant to a group of people at a table. But that isn’t all mariachi players, and that’s not where most mariachi music is performed. Samaria Pineda tells it like it is in a story she made when she was a senior at Immaculate Conception Academy in San Francisco.
I walk into a white building that looks like a brand new house. It’s to the side of St. Cornelius Church in Richmond. Parents are outside talking to one another, waiting for their kids to finish practice. Inside a few youth mariachi bands are playing. All around me are instruments being played and people singing — I feel like one of my favorite songs is playing and I want to keep pressing the replay button.
I came here to see my cousin Ana Lesly Pineda. Lesly is 18 and plays the violin and sings in Cuerditas de Oro — one of the mariachi bands practicing today.
I was introduced to Mariachi when Lesly began playing. Her mariachi band plays at our family parties from time to time, and last year I saw her perform for Cinco de Mayo at St. Peter’s Church in San Francisco. Cinco de Mayo is an important celebration of culture and heritage for mariachi players and the Mexican people. I had never heard her pour her heart into her songs like that until that day. I felt proud of her and proud of this beautiful music that was being shared at church.
Instruments And Charro Suits
I sit with Lesly and she explains the different instruments that are in a mariachi band.
"There’s violins, trumpets, guitars. In some mariachis a vihuela and a guitarron."
Each of these instruments is popular in Mexican culture and they all have their own role in a mariachi song. Some of these instruments like the guitarron originated in Mexico. The vihuela has been a part of mariachi since it began.
"I personally like the beautiful sound it makes," Lesly tells me. "It's like a guitar but also different. It has less strings and is rounder and smaller."
People embrace their culture in different ways. Many Mexicans do so by listening to and playing mariachi music. It began in Jalisco, Mexico in the early 19th century.
"People enjoyed music over there and brought those influences here so other people could hear this wonderful music and have the same experience they had," says Lesly.
Today at practice, the members are wearing casual clothes, like sweatshirts and jeans. But during their performances they wear uniforms.
"Mariachis wear a charro suit and consist of the men wearing jackets and high tight pants and while the women wear a jacket with high skirts and boots."
The mariachis in Lesly’s band wear beige jackets with white shirts accompanied by white boots and a red bow tie. There are detailed red and green patterns across the jacket sleeve and down the side of their pants. Today at practice they are preparing for a gig that they have on Saturday.
Sunday Mass And Family Gatherings
Lesly was introduced to mariachi at a young age. Her dad plays the violin as well.
"I started mariachi around 9 and 10 years old. My cousins were also a part of the mariachi group. My dad introduced me to this instrument and when I was in 3rd grade. I was taking violin classes in my elementary school."
Mariachi has been incorporated into the Sunday mass here at St. Cornelius Church. It started becoming a part of Catholic Mass at some Mexican churches in the 60's, as a way to connect Mexican culture with the religion that many Mexicans practice. This mariachi group usually plays on Sunday afternoons. But the music isn’t just played at church — a lot of people have mariachi groups play at parties and other events.
"Some of the events we’ve gone to are baptisms, wedding, quinceaneras, birthday parties, patriotic holidays, and also even in funerals. Mariachi is there for a reason--to uplift the souls."
At parties, mariachi is not just music to listen to, it is music to be danced to. It's played at events that celebrate the best moments in the lives of the Mexican people. If it's an important celebration, it's important for a mariachi band to be there.
"Mariachi members should be fun, energetic, and very outgoing. Before going onstage I wish everyone good luck to have a great performance and pray."
The audience is happy, passionate, and intrigued when they hear this music. The mariachis move with their instruments and the audience follows them as they see that they are having fun.
"We either dance to the music and make [the] audience dance with us or include them in songs and sing along with us"
Mariachi is more than just music. It is culture, spirit, and tradition of Mexico and its people. The songs speak about love, death, betrayal, machismo, politics, and revolutionary heroes.
"When mariachi gets there - that’s when all the fun starts. The people get excited when we walk in, and always tend to sing aloud with us to uplift the audience."
It also brings people together.
"Most importantly, I learned that family means a lot to them because in every party or event we go to they are all together and share a wonderful time together."
Mariachi has been passed down from generation to generation. It is a way to ensure that Mexican traditions are passed down too. My cousin’s group is for older students they have been in this mariachi class for over five years. I was able to watch the younger kids practice too. My cousin once was in the same position that they are in now. They sound so good. By taking these classes, these kids and young adults will continue the tradition of playing Mariachi into the next generation.
This story originally aired on Crosscurrents in August 2016.