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The Weekend Warriors of Mariachi

Urban professionals, hooked on the music, spend their free time performing.

August 28, 2003|Hilda Munoz | Times Staff Writer

Looking out at the crowd in the dimly lighted seafood restaurant, Victor Robles plucked steady beats on his guitarron as a fellow mariachi belted out a heartfelt Mexican love ballad.

In his black and white mariachi suit, Robles, a special education assistant for the Los Angeles Unified School District, said he looks forward to performing with El Mariachi Mi Tierra on weekend evenings at El Siete Mares in La Puente. Playing the traditional Mexican music is his passion.

"Music is what really keeps me going," said Robles, 30, between sets. "Even if I worked 50 hours at my regular job, I would still come here on the weekends."

Others in the group agree. Hector Hernandez, 28, who works for the Monterey Park Police Department and is an officer trainee at the police academy at Rio Hondo Community College in Whittier, intends to keep performing after graduation.

"I don't have to do mariachi," he said. "But I enjoy it and I won't leave it."

Robles and Hernandez are among dozens of urban professionals who change after hours from their casual corporate wear into elaborately decorated mariachi suits and perform the traditional Mexican music at venues and private parties across Los Angeles.

Many became hooked on the music in public school or college programs and continued performing long after graduating.

"I think people -- when they think about mariachis -- they tend to think of a professional mariachi that works at a restaurant full time," said Leonor Xochitl Perez, associate dean at East Los Angeles College and a former mariachi violinist.

"But there's a large group of people in Los Angeles and other large cities where there's a large Latino population who play mariachi music in addition to having full-time jobs," she said.

Unlike traditional mariachis, the extra hundred or so dollars per weekend that come with crooning to couples in restaurant booths or roaming through tables at weddings and birthday parties isn't what draws them. "I would love to play for free," said Juan Ojeda, 31. "The fact that I get paid is just icing on the cake."

Ojeda works as an accountant for a Los Angeles firm. On the weekends, he plays guitar or guitarron with various groups, filling in for their absent mariachis. He said he especially loves singing songs about heartbreak, capturing the emotion of these soulful ballads.

"When I'm singing of pain, I'm really trying to feel the pain of defeat, of unfaithfulness," he said. "I want the audience to feel the pain I'm feeling."

Carlos Santana, a guitarist with Alma de Mexico in San Fernando, began performing when he and a few classmates launched a mariachi program at Stanford University in 1994.

Santana, 26, earned a degree in mechanical engineering and now works as a designer for a Northridge speaker company.

"For me it's not about the money. I play mariachi because it's something fun to do on the weekends," he said, before hopping into a van with other group members and heading off to a quinceanera in Sylmar.

Some say mariachi music is more popular north of the border than in Mexico.

The cultural ambiguity with which U.S.-born Mexicans struggle may fuel the music's popularity in this country. Playing mariachi music is a way to establish a cultural identity -- something not necessary in Mexico, where the people are unquestionably Mexican.

"When we hear mariachi music and we learn how to play it, we reconnect with our roots," Perez said. "Much of the time, that has such a powerful effect that we're unwilling to let that go."

Perez said she learned to love the music as a student at Griffith Junior High School in East Los Angeles in 1973, when mariachi musicians were more commonly Mexican immigrants.

Many say educator Adolfo Martinez was instrumental in perpetuating mariachi in East L.A.

Martinez started a mariachi program at Belvedere Middle School in Los Angeles more than 15 years ago and another when he transferred to Roosevelt High School in Boyle Heights, where he teaches music.

Most Los Angeles schools now have such programs, he said.

For many, mariachi music becomes a lifelong passion.

Rudy Vasquez began playing in 1978 with El Mariachi Aztlan, a student group at Cal State Northridge. He stayed with the group throughout college and his teaching career and while raising his family; he still plays today.

"I've always burned the candle at both ends and the middle," said Vasquez, who teaches at San Fernando Middle School, where he started a juvenile mariachi program in the early 1990s.

Some take a break from mariachi because of career or family commitments, but they don't stray too far or too long from the music. They might tutor younger mariachis, attend concerts and eventually perform again.

Perez, 41, last performed three years ago at the Hollywood Bowl for the annual Mariachi Festival. She had just received her doctorate in education research from UCLA and went from cap and gown to mariachi suit.

"I couldn't think of a better way to celebrate than to perform," she said.

Now that her daughter is a little older and not as dependent on her, Perez said, she's been thinking about returning to the mariachi world.

"Just recently I've been like, 'OK, I want to pick up my violin again,' " she said. "I'm beginning to feel the urges to play again."

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