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How a gringo found his mariachi groove

At a low point in his life, Matthew Stoneman discovered a future in Latin music. Puzzled whispers and derisive laughs don't deter him as he performs in Los Angeles to mostly Latino immigrant audiences

November 29, 2009|By Nicole Santa Cruz
  • Matthew Stoneman, known as "Mateo," is not your average mariachi. Though he's part of the L.A. scene of traveling troubadours, he's vastly different from them, not only in style, but also in appearance.
Matthew Stoneman, known as "Mateo," is not your average mariachi.… (Barbara Davidson / Los Angeles…)

Standing in the middle of a bustling Mexican restaurant in La Puente with a worn acoustic guitar propped high on his chest, Matthew Stoneman looks nothing like the other mariachis working this night.

There's no 10-gallon hat or silver-studded charro outfit. Instead, Stoneman is all strawberry blond hair and milky skin on a scrawny frame.

But the moment he begins to sing, Matthew becomes Mateo, the Spanish tenor.

He croons the lyrics to a Venezuelan love song: "Cuando la tarde languidece, renacen las sombras. . . ."

"When the afternoon languishes, the shadows are reborn. . . ."

For eight years, the 45-year-old New Hampshire native has pursued his musical dream on the streets of L.A., cooing Spanish love songs to a mostly immigrant audience. He performs at weddings, anniversaries, funerals and other special occasions.

He's even appeared on the Spanish-language version of "American Idol," called "Cuanto Cuesta El Show," whose audience seemed to enjoy the novelty of his act. His first record, self-released in 2002, was simply called "El Gringo Mariachi."

But life as a working musician can be tough, especially for one performing in a foreign language. He has struggled financially and has had to endure whispers from puzzled customers, snickers from nasty waitresses and laughs from macho troubadours.

"Trying to sing is like being naked," he said. "It's like exposing yourself."

Then there are those nights when it's all worth it, when Stoneman hits the right notes and sets the right mood, and the women swoon. It's enough to keep his dream alive. "I am trying to push myself through to the next level," he said, "by making it so good that it's not up to chance."

So how did Matthew from New Hampshire become Mateo from Boyle Heights? It's something the musician doesn't like to talk about. He speaks broadly of his love of Latin American culture and refers obliquely to a Mexican woman he was infatuated with.

But to really get to the heart of the answer, you need to go to a place Mateo isn't anxious to revisit -- even in song.

A musical family

Stoneman always had a love for music. His father taught general music classes and his mother was a piano instructor. Growing up, he played various instruments, sang in the high school choir and then performed in a rock band shortly after graduation.

He was 19 when he decided to move from a small town in New Hampshire to California in 1983. He worked a number of odd jobs, including one as a waiter and another as a part-time piano player at the West Hollywood Hyatt hotel.

But Stoneman struggled to make a living in the big city, and it wasn't long before he was getting into trouble. In 1997, he was convicted of robbery in Los Angeles and served four years in prison.

"My plan was to keep doing robberies," said Stoneman, who was convicted of stealing equipment from a recording studio and a music store. "I was out of my mind."

Prison was a wake-up call. Never close to his family, he knew his life had to change, and so it was there that he rediscovered music. But this time with a twist.

Stoneman had always had an affinity for Latino culture. He was intrigued by the mariachi music he heard flowing through the streets of L.A.'s Eastside. He realized his soft, delicate voice was perfect for boleros, slow romantic songs. Some inmates offered to translate his songs into Spanish. Another taught him basic guitar chords.

"It's like a painter that tries sculpting," he said about singing in Spanish. "It brings out a different type of emotion."

Stoneman took to walking around the prison yard, guitar in hand, singing for staff members and fellow inmates. He did covers of Trio Los Panchos and Pedro Infante, whom Stoneman calls the "Mexican Elvis."

In prison, he began writing his own songs. He also had time to reflect on his life. But it is painful for him to talk about this period because he still thinks about the people he hurt with his crimes.

"I put my intelligence to better use these days," he said.

He was released Aug. 13, 2001. Two days later, guitar in hand, Stoneman dropped a hat on Olvera Street. He was determined to find an audience, anyone who would listen.

When Stoneman strolled into Barragan's Mexican Restaurant in Echo Park in 2007, manager Michael Barragan took one look at the performer and made his decision.

"I said we don't allow people to sing in our restaurant, which we do," Barragan said. "I didn't think he would be a good singer." The next time he saw Stoneman was a year later when he was hired to perform at a private party at the restaurant.

Barragan was impressed. He purchased some of the "Mateo" CDs that Stoneman had released in 2004 and invited the performer to sing at his parent's house Christmas Day. Stoneman also occasionally performs at the restaurant

"Once I heard him, it taught me a valuable lesson: that I should never stereotype anyone for the way they look," Barragan said. "I stereotyped him because he's a gringo singing Spanish music."

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