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Pop Music | Weekend Chat

Mariachi in L.A.: As Vital to Mexicans as Their Flag

August 10, 2000|ALISA VALDES-RODRIGUEZ | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Newport Beach's Jose Hernandez, 41, is one of the best-known mariachi bandleaders, producers and arrangers in the world. He leads two famed mariachi ensembles: the Mariachi Sol de Mexico and the city's first all-female mariachi group, Mariachi Reyna de Los Angeles.

He has worked with artists ranging from Linda Ronstadt to Selena to the Beach Boys. He's arguably the wealthiest mariachi musician in the nation.

Mariachi is a 200-year-old Mexican folk music genre, and Hernandez, a classically trained musician, is known for having taken the music to a new level with his intricate arrangements and nontraditional instrumentation.

Hernandez has mixed mariachi with a wide range of European and U.S. styles, from symphonic to pop. For instance, he has arranged swing-era and Beach Boys songs for a mariachi ensemble. He describes this type of experimentation as "the best of Mexican flan with American apple pie."

A sixth-generation mariachi musician, Hernandez was born in Mexicali, Mexico, but raised in Pico Rivera from the age of 4. He is married, with four children.

Hernandez owns a South El Monte restaurant, Cielito Lindo, where Mariachi Sol de Mexico performs six nights a week. He is the founder of the Mariachi Heritage Society and the Mariachi Heritage Society Foundation, based in Los Angeles and dedicated to the preservation of mariachi.

The foundation provides lessons to about 900 children a year, in eight schools.

Hernandez and his group perform Saturday at the Universal Amphitheatre.

Question: You're one of this city's most famous, yet least famous, people. Why do you think that is?

Answer: I would assume because of the place that mariachi is in general. People that are really true fanatics of the music, they know of me and the group, yet the music is not on the airwaves all the time. They still haven't programmed mariachi groups as they do a solo artist, always as a background artist, so it's hard to be in the mainstream of Mexican popular music.

It's very frustrating, but I don't give up. [The labels and stations] would promote it more like a norteno group, or a banda group, but not a mariachi group, yet internationally mariachi is the music that represents Mexico.

Q: It's well known around here that you make a lot of money, which might surprise some people. How much money can a mariachi star make in a year?

A: I think I'm one of the exceptions in a way because I own my own restaurant and business and production company, and I produce records. I'm not just a player. I have two groups, Mariachi Sol de Mexico, and Mariachi Reyna de Los Angeles.

Q: Where do you live, and what does your house look like?

A: It's 4,200 square feet, six bedrooms and five bathrooms. It's in Newport Beach, a place called Lido Island. It's a real nice place, surrounded by water. It's nice, but I wish I'd see more Latinos living there, you know? But I guess somebody's got to be the first one! (He laughs.)

My neighbors are great; they really like the music a lot. They were never exposed to mariachi the way I perform it before. They always thought it was just three or four guys in a small restaurant somewhere.

Q: What's the worst stereotype people have of mariachi?

A: That we're just folk musicians who don't know how to read or write music, or that we're the stereotypical Mexican a lot of people have been exposed to in the media: a fat Mexican, with a fat mustache, with a bottle of tequila next to him in the bar.

When they see a group like Sol or Reyna, young guys, well-groomed, good musicians, a lot of people get blown away. When they see real musicianship, see me conducting a symphony, or playing with a symphony, they learn to admire the musicianship of mariachi.

Q: How would you describe mariachi for people who don't really know what it is?

A: It's almost a parallel of country music, in a way, in the States. It's a music that was born of the peasants in Mexico; it's definitely the music that is in the soul of every Mexican. It's almost like the Mexican flag.

It's something that all Mexicans are very proud of and something I'm proud of. This year we celebrated 125 years of playing this music in my family.

Q: Why is mariachi important to Los Angeles?

A: I mean, it's a big part of our city in Los Angeles. What is the percentage of Mexicans in L.A.? After Guadalajara and Mexico City, I think we're next in line for most Mexicans. It's a big part of our identity here. It's a way for us to keep in touch with our roots.

Q: How did you fall in love with mariachi?

A: I was born into it, a tradition passed from generation to generation. I've never known any other love for any other type of music in a way. It's always been a part of me. Seeing my father and five older brothers play it, I never had any other vision than doing mariachi.

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