Maureen Sanchez is an unlikely mariachi musician.
She has never stepped foot in Mexico. She learned Spanish as a second language. And at 14, she has experienced little of what inspires the lyrics: love, death, betrayal, loss.
"I've never really felt how these people feel," said Maureen, who lives in Whittier. "That's where my grandma comes in. She tells me how to do the emotions."
Mariachi classes, camps and programs have opened the Mexican genre to young people throughout Southern California. Many of the youths are second- and third-generation Latinos who have grown up speaking English and listening to pop music but are now donning charro outfits and performing the Spanish-language songs at festivals and quinceaneras.
For Maureen and other young singers, mariachi is about far more than the music. It is about learning the customs of their grandparents and carrying them on here in the U.S. Maureen's grandmother, Martha Baeza, 54, sang mariachi as a young woman and performed at restaurants and parties.
Maureen has been singing the songs of her grandmother's youth for nearly 10 years. She has performed at the Hollywood Bowl, the Los Angeles County Fair and Disneyland, recorded three CDs and appeared on national radio and television.
"When I sing, it is really different," she said. "The Mexican blood is rushing to my brain and everywhere."
Her grandfather, Larry Baeza, 60, who was born in the U.S. and grew up listening to rhythm and blues, said Maureen's singing has also given him a better appreciation for his own culture.
"I got away from my traditions," said Baeza, who works as a truck driver and is Maureen's publicist, manager, agent and chauffeur. "Maureen really brought me back to my Mexican heritage."
Longtime mariachi musician and teacher Heriberto Molina, who teaches at his Pico Rivera home, said Mexican American children as young as 5 are picking up vihuelas and trumpets to play the songs of Mexico.
"It's a surprising thing," said Molina. "The future of Mexican music is in the United States."
Molina, who taught Maureen for a year and a half, said her talent made her unique. "Maureen was born with a gift," he said.
When Maureen was 5, her grandparents enrolled her in a class. Two weeks later, Maureen performed at the Mariachi USA Festival at the Hollywood Bowl. She didn't know Spanish or understand what she was singing.
"She was so tiny," said Rodri Rodriguez, who puts on the festival. "The microphone was almost as big as she was."
Soon, Maureen started singing professionally and traveling around the country with Rodriguez's company. She also joined a youth mariachi band and sang at weddings and birthday parties. Being onstage, she said, "felt like home."
But Maureen said that throughout elementary and middle school, classmates teased her for singing in another language.
"They would tell me, 'This is America, not Mexico.' "
She considered quitting, but her grandfather encouraged her to keep singing.
Through the songs, Maureen learned Spanish. She also learned discipline. Every day, she and her grandmother practice, rehearsing songs and working on pronunciation and expression.
In her room at her grandparents' house, her elaborate, embroidered mariachi outfits -- which can cost up to $1,600 -- hang from her bedpost. A "Sex and the City" calendar is posted on the wall and a mirror is decorated with photos of Maureen and her friends. Maureen listens to everything -- pop, '80s hits and rhythm and blues.
But she said she still loves mariachi the best. She has more than 100 CDs of her favorite musicians, including Vicente Fernandez and Juan Gabriel.
"It gets to me, deep down inside," she said. "It's poetry, with different kinds of music and beats. It's beautiful music."
On a recent morning, Maureen sang for a Univision show called "Viva La Familia," belting out a heartfelt tune called "Me Desperto La Realidad" -- "Reality Woke Me Up." The song, Martha Baeza said, reminded her of the early days of her marriage.
Watching her granddaughter in the Westlake Village studio, Baeza's eyes welled. She said she loves watching Maureen sing and knowing that she is receiving the support and opportunities that Baeza only dreamed of.
As Maureen finished her last note, Baeza touched her heart and said simply, "Wow."