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Women of Mariachi

Not long ago females weren't part of the tradition. Mariachi USA Festival shows how times change.


Rosie the Riveter's got nothin' on Las Adelitas.

During the Mexican Revolution of 1910, a group of women known as Las Adelitas fought alongside male soldiers for social reform and cultural determination in the seven-year battle against dictator Porfirio Diaz.

They were practitioners of a little-known tradition of Mexican feminism that lives on in the Los Angeles-based group Las Adelitas, which--through their female mariachi group--are fighting a cultural battle to preserve a spirited musical heritage. But this time around, Las Adelitas' battle takes place on the stage rather than on the battlefield.

Reinterpreting classic ballads normally sung by men, the group plays Saturday and Sunday at the eighth annual Mariachi USA Festival at the Hollywood Bowl. (It also plays a free concert Friday at noon at downtown's California Plaza, 300 S. Grand Ave.)

Wearing teal charro outfits with long, narrow skirts, waist-length fitted jackets and silver bows in their hair, Mariachi Las Adelitas bring a new feel to the music when they sing about unrequited love and balazos (bullet shots), play their mariachi brass and let out the famous grito, or shout.

Jose Luis Salinas, Las Adelitas' musical director, says the 13 young women in the group, ranging in age from 15 to 25, are pioneers in their field, a signal that the once-predominantly male domain of mariachi music is making way for talented women. "Five years ago, there were no female mariachis," he says. "This is kind of new."

Aside from the feminine presence, this year's festival brings together some of the country's premier mariachi groups, including Mariachi Cobre from Florida, Campanas de America from Texas and Mariachi Internacional de Mexico from San Bernardino. Special guests include mariachi singer Nydia Rojas, the 17-year-old Hacienda Heights woman who recently made history by becoming the first mariachi to appear on MTV; 25-year-old Mexican soloist Carlos Marquez; 11-year-old opera and Mexican music singer Gabriel Yafet; 10-year-old Pobedy Montes of Los Angeles; and Escalante, a Mexican composer and pianist who creates the sound of a full orchestra on his ELX-1 organ.

In a special tribute to Frank Sinatra, Mariachi Internacional de Mexico will perform hybridized versions of classic Sinatra tunes such as "Strangers in the Night" and "I've Got You Under My Skin."

Drawing from a rich musical history that dates to the Jalisco Highlands of Mexico in the 1870s, traditional mariachi music--which is said to incorporate Spanish and Aztec instrumentation and rhythms--utilizes six violins, one or two trumpets, a five-string vihuela and a six-string bass guitar called the guitarron to create a sound that many call the soul of Mexican culture.

Mariachi USA Festival producer Rodri J. Rodriguez, who also hosts "The Rodri Show" on KFI-AM (640), says headlining guests such as Nydia Rojas are a great addition to the festival, but it's the strength of the music that keeps festival-goers coming back every year.

"Our first year we had Vicki Carr and Linda Ronstadt guest-starring, and people said, 'Well, that's why you sold out,' " Rodriguez says. "And I thought that was really interesting that they were saying if it was just mariachis, no one would come. The next year, I didn't have any big names, and we still sold out."

Most of the musicians participating in Mariachi USA are U.S.-born children of Mexican immigrants who play mariachi music to preserve their culture in this country, Rodriguez says. It's a commitment to tradition that has made Los Angeles the mariachi capital of the world--home to more mariachis than any other city.

"Adelita" Leticia Garcia, whose parents are from Michoacan, says she started playing the violin 10 years ago while still a teenager in Los Angeles. She developed her skill at Roosevelt High School in East L.A. The 24-year-old UC Irvine graduate now teaches special education classes at her alma mater.

"I take the mariachis to perform for the students, and the kids love it," she says. "They get a kick out of their teacher being a mariachi. You bring the culture into the classroom, and it removes all the negative stereotypes about their culture. It shows them that their culture is positive and needs to be carried on."

Second- and third-generation Latinas like Garcia also make up most of Mariachi USA's audience.

"The younger audiences just like the music," Rodriguez says. "It's hip now to be Latino, or at least it's starting to be."

A testament to mariachi's new-found hipness is last year's hip-hop single "Tres Delinquentes," which received heavy rotation on KPWR-FM (105.9). The English-language cut, by Norwalk-based hip-hop group Delinquent Habits, sampled Herb Alpert mariachi brass loops for a sound that bridged two worlds with its street sensibility and nod to tradition.

And when it comes to mariachi, tradition is the key. Max Chorra, a 32-year-old member of Mariachi Internacional de Mexico, echoes the opinion of many of the other musicians when it comes to the source of his passion for the music. "Mariachi is in my blood," he says. "It's an inheritance. My father, my brothers, they're all mariachis."


The Mariachi USA Festival, Saturday and Sunday at the Hollywood Bowl, 2301 N. Highland Ave., 6 p.m. Saturday, 5 p.m. Sunday. $12.50-$125. Gates open at 4 p.m. Saturday; 3 p.m. Sunday. (213) 850-2000.

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