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ORANGE COUNTY CALENDAR: ARTS, ENTERTAINMENT, LEISURE

Having a Mariachi Christmas

* A new Southland holiday tradition has emerged. 'Fiesta Navidad' is in its sixth year at the Orange County Performing Arts Center, and Jose Hernandez's 'Spectacular' will again be presented in Cerritos.

December 14, 1999|CHRIS PASLES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Most people probably don't expect Christmas traditions to start in Southern California. But they do. There are now two mariachi Christmas programs to enjoy in what appears to be an exclusive Southern California holiday event.

Natividad Cano will present his "Fiesta Navidad" for the sixth consecutive year Thursday at the Orange County Performing Arts Center in Costa Mesa.

Jose Hernandez's "Mariachi Spectacular" holiday program will be presented Dec. 26 for the second consecutive year at the Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts.

"The show we do in Cerritos is a bigger show," Hernandez said in a recent phone interview from his home in El Monte.

"There are more musicians involved, more groups. But there aren't any other mariachi groups in the nation or in Mexico doing it. We're [both groups] the only ones."

Cano's show, sponsored by the Philharmonic Society of Orange County, includes his Mariachi Los Camperos and the dancers of Ballet Folklorico Ollin.

Hernandez presents his Sol de Mexico, Reyna de Los Angeles (an all-female mariachi), Mariachi Voz de America and Ballet Folklorico del Pacifico.

Trip to Bethlehem Is Re-Enacted

Both programs include a fiesta de la posada, which symbolically reenacts Joseph and Mary's pilgrimage to Bethlehem, the breaking of a pinata, songs and dances from various states in Mexico, and traditional seasonal favorites.

Some of the dances and the songs in Cano's program have changed over the years, but essentially "Fiesta Navidad" has stayed the same.

"Like the 'Nutcracker,' you can't change it too much," Cano said in a recent phone interview from Los Angeles. "You have to do the Christmas songs, the breaking of the pinata, and the posada. That's what it's all about."

Cano has taken his program all over the county and presents about 20 performances a year.

"There are only so many days in the holiday season," he said. "We start late in November and finish around the same time in December."

For all his travels, including a trip to Mexico recently for a mariachi festival that brought groups from France, Belgium, Italy and South America, home base for Cano is his La Fonda Restaurant, which he founded 30 years ago in Los Angeles.

"At the time, they said I was crazy. They said there were too many mariachis in too many cantinas. They didn't know my idea was to have mariachis play as artists, not just play at tables for dollars.

"I still emphasize the high quality of the musicians. There's no other way I would do it."

Quality is also a concern for Hernandez.

"There always was this stereotype," he said. "Most people have been approached in parties by mariachis. Eighty or ninety percent of mariachi bands weren't that well-prepared musically. But mariachi is presented in a classier way now, and musically in a more well-prepared way. We've been all over the place. Everywhere we go, people say, 'We love to hear the mariachis play in tune.' "

Mariachi Playing Runs in the Family

Also based in Los Angeles since 1962, Hernandez comes from a family of mariachi players that includes his father and grandfather.

"Next year, we'll be celebrating 125 years of mariachi music in my family, six generations of musicians," he said. "Now my nieces and nephews are also beginning to play this music.

"Mariachi has traditionally been brought down from generation to generation. This is the first time that musicians are beginning to learn the music [from notation]."

Nine years ago, he founded the nonprofit Mariachi Heritage Society to continue the family traditions by teaching them to children.

"It's neat to expose kids to this music and to teach them about the instruments and traditions," he said.

For all their common interests, neither Hernandez nor Cano has seen the other's show.

"He plays his own music," Hernandez said. "We do a little more crossover--'Joy to the World,' 'White Christmas'--a lot of songs I've been exposed to here.

"It's a 100% family show. The music is intended to cross all barriers, all racial barriers. Everybody can learn and enjoy this show--learn about Mexican traditions and also hear their favorite American Christmas songs."

"I know there is a lot of competition out there," Cano said. "But competition is fine. It improves everybody. But you can't really ignore quality. I hope people enjoy what we do. I give my best. Whatever I feel, my heart goes there."

* Natividad Cano's "Fiesta Navidad" will be presented at 8 p.m. Thursday at the Orange County Performing Arts Center, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. $18-$38. (714) 556-2787.

* Jose Hernandez's "Mariachi Spectacular" will be performed Dec. 26 at 7 p.m. at the Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts, 12700 Center Court Drive, Cerritos. $42-$52. (800) 300-4345.

Chris Pasles can be reached at (714) 966-5602 or by e-mail at chris.pasles@latimes.com.

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