In male world of Mariachi, women sing their own tune

Mariachi Sonidos de America Feminil

In Plaza Garibaldi, female musicians muscle in on the men.

(This article appeared in The News, Mexico on Saturday November 17th. They’re yet to launch a website. See below for a video of the band singing)

Dusk falls on a regular Thursday night in Mexico City’s Plaza de Garibaldi and the capital’s multitude of mariachi prepare for another night’s work.

Amidst the overwhelmingly male musicians strutting around the neglected Plaza in their skin-tight charro outfits is Mariachi Sonidos de America Feminil – a female group of musicians daring to brave the macho tradition of the mariachi.

Dressed in eye-catching black charro outfits with bright pink sashes tied at the waist and neck, the ensemble stands out in the sea of masculine rivals. Isabel Aguilar and her eight companeras and lone male member have been playing in Plaza de Garibaldi on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturday nights for the last six months and it hasn’t been easy.

“Mexican men are macho and Mexican male mariachi are more macho, so it’s very difficult,” explains 26-year old Aguilar, who plays the violin and sings.

She and her companions are one of the few female mariachi groups working in Mexico City, and each member of the band has a father, an uncle or a cousin who was a mariachi before them. But despite their currently scarcity in Plaza de Garibaldi, women in mariachi music have a surprisingly long, if largely unknown, history.

All-female mariachi bands in Mexico date back to as early as the 1940s, when Mariachi Las Coronelas formed in Mexico City. By the 1950s two more all-female groups emerged in Mexico’s capital: Mariachi Las Adelitas and Mariachi Michoacano and there are now other all-female groups in outside the capital in states such as Guadalajara, where Las Morenas de Mexico Lindo have been going for 15 years. But all-girl ensembles are more prolific in the United States, and the machismo that is so strong in Mexican culture could be to blame for that.

“Many men don’t believe that we, as women, can add much musically,” says Aguilar, who is infuriated by the hostility she so often encounters.

In addition, she says that many male mariachi assume that women working as musicians are ‘easy’ sexually because they work at late at night in an environment charged with what usually accompanies musicians – alcohol, romance and sex.

The female group has adapted the traditional pants of the traje de chorro into floor-length fitted skirts with traditional silver buttons running down the sides, so as to avoid wearing the tight-pants sported by their male rivals. The only male member of the band, Armando Hernandez, is sticking to protocol with his outfit but he says he gets plenty of stick from male colleagues for playing with the women.

And it’s not only men who can give the band a hard time.

“It’s difficult for us to serenade a man in our usual style because their wives get angry. If a man contracts us, their wives ask: ‘Why are you using women?,” says Aguilar.

Difficulties for the mariachi mujeres also seep into their personal lives, as is the case for many working women. Only two of the nine female musicians are married, none of them have children, and having relationships with Mexican men can be awkward. The group often works until the early hours of the morning, and many husbands and boyfriends don’t like the fact that their partners are surrounded by drunken men and male musicians.

Lizbeth Gabriel, aged 26, is one of the only two married members of the group. Her husband is also a musician, but they play in different plazas to avoid problems.

“We don’t play together because usually he’s jealous as because I’m a woman I get a lot of attention. Sometimes at parties [that he plays at] the women latch onto the mariachis. So to avoid problems he works there and I work here,” she explains.

Children are on the cards, but Gabriel acknowledges sharing time between a husband, a baby and her night-time occupation will be tricky.

“I have colleagues who have babies and they’re not here much because their babies need a lot of time.”

But despite the rough time that the female mariachis often get, Aguilar says that many of their male colleagues in the square are very supportive and that attitudes are improving.

Most of the mariachis approached by the News declined to comment on the girl-band, but Alfonso Duran, head of the band Mariachi Juvenil Huetamo, was happy to: “I’ve been here 30 years and I respect them a lot. They play their instruments and sing very well. And I don’t see the difference. Some of my colleagues complain that they’re women but often they’ve taught us how we should play. There are a lot of men working here who don’t even play the guitar, and they’re men. And these women study and practice and play very well!”

The talent of Mariachi Sonidos de America Feminil is being recognized elsewhere and the band recently returned from performing in a festival in Tlaxcala. As we walk away, they’re approached by a couple eager for a musical fix and they launch into their rendition of the mariachi classic La Madrugada, Isabel belting out the vocals to drown out the cacophony of male voices around her. Viva la revolucion – la lucha sige!


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One Response

  1. My mother’s wedding featured a mariachi band with a female leaser. No one had any complaints and we all had a great time.

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