Remember the scene in Coco when Miguel is in his secret ofrenda room playing his guitar? (If you haven’t seen Coco yet, keep reading but Go. See. It.) It’s one of the most beautiful moments in the film – the moment when Miguel creates his own enchantment, and we are witness to his transformation from a boy into a musician. And not just any musician – a mariachi musician. To witness this transformation is to ask a question: Do we love this music because it’s Mexican? Or are we Mexican because we love this music?
The music of the mariachi, especially for Mexicans and Mexican Americans in the US, is a cultural emblem that not only occupies a central place in community celebrations, it has evolved into a sort of soundtrack for our cultural identity. It’s no surprise its cadence delivers our life’s enchantments. This is the music our parents played when we were born, at baptisms, quinceñeras, weddings. This is the music our families arrange for our funerals. It’s the first thing we hear at the beginning of life, and the sound which delivers us to the other side, when we reach the end of our journey.
In Coco, mariachi music is a dream foretold. We hear a story not just about remembrance for our loved ones, or about aspirations and dreams – but also a story about our memory of music, about the music of memory and the cadences of yearning, nostalgia and separation.
So what does yearning sound like? And where did this singular incantation come from?
To answer these questions, I turned to one of America’s most beloved mariachi ensembles, pioneers of the American mariachi movement in education and festival production and currently performing daily at Disney’s Mexico Pavilion in Epcot Center as well as with symphony orchestras nationally – Mariachi Cobre.
They responded, as I hoped they would, with a brand new recording of Coco’s signature song, “Remember Me” – exclusively for HipLatina. Founded in 1971, Mariachi Cobre has played an essential role as a national catalyst of mariachi music in the United States, as a founder of three important mariachi festivals in California, Arizona and New Mexico, as well as through their popular performances at Walt Disney World’s Mexico Pavilion. Check out Cobre’s very special English and Spanish language rendition of “Remember Me,” performed in the style of “puro mariachi” :
If you can dream with your eyes open during this serenade read on. Otherwise, let the wave of nostalgia wash over you. And then read on.
Some scholars place the beginning of the mariachi backstory with Hernán Cortés’ arrival in Mexico in 1519. Traveling with him were musicians who carried with them acoustic instruments – the harp and the vihuela, prototypes of those later used by the mariachi. But Mexico’s indigenous people had their own complex and highly developed musical traditions – one indigenous instrument re-created the sound of a Jaguar’s roar, for example. So when Spanish chapel-masters brought European musical practices to the indigenous population of Mexico the music of Spanish colonizers was mixed with African musics, (also “brought” to Mexico during the early colonial period) and with indigenous music practice. Much of the regional tradition of mestizo folk music, including that of the mariachi, arose from the blending of culture, music and oral folk traditions of indigenous and foreign musical cultures.
The mariachi is native to western Mexico – a large region encompassing the states of Jalisco, Nayarit, Zacatecas, Aguascalientes, Guanajuato, Michoacán, and Colima. Although the exact birthplace of the mariachi remains unknown, Guadalajara today celebrates the genre at its justly famous festival of mariachi music, held annually in September.
The early practitioners of mariachi music in the second half of the nineteenth century were commonly found at rural fiestas or fandangos, where a tarima or wooden platform was used by couples to create zapateados or dance movements, to sones and jarabes, the two most important genres of the early mariachi repertory. Early mariachis were acoustic ensembles featuring outfits of simple white blouses and pants. After the Revolution of 1910, however, and especially with the advent of radio, mariachi ensembles adopted elegant uniforms and expanded their ensembles to include violins, trumpets and woodwinds. The formal version of this suit worn by contemporary mariachis – with its form-fitting ornamented pants, short jacket, embroidered belt, boots, wide bow tie, and sombrero – is a modern homage to the Mexican charro, or cowboy.
In 1979 the first American mariachi festival was held in San Antonio. Later, after Linda Ronstadt’s historic album “Canciones de Mi Padre” broke industry sales records, mariachi festivals founded in Tucson and San Jose by Mariachi Cobre, in Los Angeles by Mariachi Sol de Mexico, and others formed by community organizations in many other states became very popular. The festivals in Tucson, Los Angeles, Chicago, Washington State and New York survive today and at Epcot Center, visitors can hear Mariachi Cobre and also visit a newly curated exhibition of Mexican arts. Entitled “Remember Me!” La Celebración del Día de Muertos, this exhibition features the work of prominent Mexican and Mexican-American artists in an exploration of one of Mexico’s most important holidays. Disney has also added two dioramas which depict a traditional family ofrenda and a scene from a Mexican graveyard depicting families preparing for Día de Muertos.
Online you can hear and learn about mariachi on PBS, on the YouTube Mariachi Channel, through Smithsonian Folkways and through the many articles and web sites devoted to mariachi heritage. Information on mariachi education is available through the Mariachi Heritage Society.
But to gain an understanding of the intangible – and comprehend the invisible border we cross when rational thought turns into emotion – all you need to do is listen to any song performed by a concert level mariachi, or a children’s mariachi group, or one of the new feminist mariachi groups, or the mariachi band at your local cantina. Listen close when the lead tenor or soprano hits the falsetto so classically ingrained in the mariachi genre, and holds the note until you have to breathe again, and holds it another minute – for then you have crossed the rubicon.
Your soul now belongs to the mariachi. The only way to get it back, and then only temporarily, is to listen once more.