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Mariachi festival is music to the ears of fans but fails to drum up support for college.

June 30, 1988|MARY LOU FULTON | Times Staff Writer

Nona sat quietly in the stands overlooking the mariachi festival, straw hat in hand, until the group Sol de Mexico began playing one of her favorite songs.

With a whoop, the 64-year-old Long Beach resident began tossing her head and singing along, white earrings swinging madly as she waved her hat and stomped to the beat on the cement beneath her metal stadium bench.

"I love mariachi music," said Nona, a lifelong Californian who is of Latin heritage. "Everywhere they have mariachis, I go. Restaurants, festivals, everywhere."

Nona, who declined to give her last name, got her fill last Sunday at Cerritos College, where some of the biggest names in the business played the folk music of Mexico for more than five hours.

Ten bands played at the college stadium, with more than 100 musicians joining in the finale featuring three of Mexico's most famous mariachi artists: Lola Beltran, Lucha Villa and Miguel Aceves Mejia.

The 86-degree heat drove many people into the partially shaded stadium stands, where it was apparent that the festival had drawn far less than the stadium's 15,000-person capacity--and far less than organizers had expected.

"I thought it was going to be packed," one fan said. About 2,500 people attended.

Proceeds from the festival were to benefit the college's year-old Cultural Arts Project, which is trying to recruit students (especially Latinos) by sponsoring music, theater and dance classes in local school districts.

More than 300 students from Norwalk, Cerritos, Hawaiian Gardens and Bellflower are enrolled in the program, said Scott Henderson, music department chairman at Cerritos College.

The financial loss for the festival, estimated in the tens of thousands of dollars, is the responsibility of the concert promoter, Henderson said, not the college.

"We just didn't make any money for our program," he said.

Henderson, half-Latino and a native of Tucson, had dreamed for years of starting an annual mariachi festival. "I'm interested in my roots," he said.

Mariachi music has long been popular in Tucson, he said, and another Tucson native--pop singer Linda Ronstadt--has been spreading the sound across the country with her current mariachi tour and album, "Canciones de mi Padre." Although Henderson's sisters attended high school with Ronstadt, he was unable to book her for the festival.

Henderson blamed the attendance problem on poor publicity, but said he would like to try again next year.

"We really did have the leading people from Mexico," he said, "but we only started doing promotion (for the event) last week . . . Artistically, the people there really seemed to enjoy it."

The die-hard fans occupied the front one-third of the field, many taking refuge from the sun under colorfully striped umbrellas. A photographer, a sequin-studded black velvet sombrero slung over one shoulder, made his way through the crowd offering Polaroid mementos of the day for $5.

The mariachis, sweating in their traditional matching bolero jackets and trousers, performed on risers in front of the stage's black backdrop. Their acoustic music was dominated by violins, strumming guitars and trumpets, with powerful vocalists who gestured dramatically as they sang songs of love and country.

The pace of the music inspired different reactions among the mostly adult crowd, from contented sighs upon recognition of a familiar romantic ballad to delighted shrieks at the start of a lively, trumpet-accented ranchero.

"This is great, this lineup is just great," said Regina Hernandez, 54, of Norwalk, as she applauded a tune performed by singer Lucha Villa. "I have been listening to her records for years."

Villa, clad in a gold lame dress and backed by 43 mariachis, drew laughter from the crowd when she invited the musicians to catch up with her after the show. "Forty-three for me alone," she said in Spanish, eyeing the mariachis. "Can you imagine the emotion?"

But the greatest applause of the day was reserved for Lola Beltran, known as La Reina-- Mexico's queen of mariachi music. Beltran, who has recorded more than 100 albums and appeared in 50 movies since 1953, was greeted by a standing ovation from fans on the field who waved and showered her with red flowers.

Octavio Rosas of Los Angeles said he staked out his spot in the front row of the field just so he could be close to Beltran.

"The rest, they're good, but nobody is like her," Rosas said with a happy smile as Beltran, clad in her customary black, took her bows. "Nobody is like her."

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