When Leonor Perez found mariachi, she found her voice

Video: Dr. Leonor Xochitl Perez curated the lobby exhibit on “The Trailblazing Women of Mariachi Music” in conjunction with the DCPA Theatre Company’s ‘American Mariachi,’ playing through Feb. 25 before moving to the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego. Video by DCPA Video Producer David Lenk and Senior Arts Journalist John Moore. 

Pioneering female mariachi was taught to keep her voice down, until she found the music that invited her to scream

By John Moore
Senior Arts Journalist

Today, Dr. Leonor Xochitl Perez holds a PhD in Education from UCLA and a master’s degree in human development and psychology from Harvard. Which would be enough for most people.

But Perez has lived an entirely additional accomplished life as the leading proponent and preservationist of women’s mariachi history in two countries.

Back in 1973, young Perez was just an unassuming wisp of a girl who took up mariachi music at her junior high school in East Los Angeles, little realizing that by joining one of the first youth mariachi groups in the country, she would soon be breaking decades-old barriers in a predominantly macho musical culture.

American Mariachi quote“Back then, we were at the beginning of a time where we were reclaiming our right to hang on to our culture and our heritage,” Perez said at opening festivities for the DCPA Theatre Company’s world-premiere play with music American Mariachi, by José Cruz González.

“I walked into a mariachi class for the first time as a girl who was not allowed to embrace her culture,” said Perez , who went on to an accomplished career in higher education. “My parents were more concerned about upward mobility and assimilation. But when the guitarrón, which is the big bass instrument, started playing, I could feel vibrations of that sound throughout my body. And it was reaching somewhere deeper than that moment and that sound.

“I know that when I heard that music, I was reaching somewhere further back in time.”

Perez went on to perform at two Presidential Inaugural Balls — one at 19 years old — and at the Hollywood Bowl.

(Fast-forward through many years of raising a family and astonishing success in higher education here.)

Perez decided to return to the arts in 2012 to become Artistic Projects Manager for the San Diego Symphony. She went on to found Mariachi Women, an organization that exists to recognize and empower mariachi women throughout the world, primarily through staging large women’s mariachi festivals throughout the world.

For the Denver Center’s production of American Mariachi, Perez has curated a massive lobby exhibit outside the Stage Theatre called The Trailblazing Women of Mariachi Music.

“It’s very exciting that Denver is the first venue to offer this play,” she said, “and it’s actually a beautiful thing because Denver has an important place in Mexican-American history. In March of 1969, the first-ever convening of Mexican-American students happened right here in Denver. More than 1,500 Latino youth came from all over the country and they redefined their ethnic identity as Chicanos. Many of them went on to  become activists and important people nationally and internationally. So I’d say it’s no coincidence that this play is starting here in Denver.”

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Photo gallery: The trailblazing women of mariachi music lobby display

Making of 'American Mariachi'

Photos from the making of ‘American Mariachi, including a sneak peek at the lobby exhibit curated by Dr. Leonr Xochitl Perez, above. To see more photos, click on the image above to be taken to our full gallery. Photos by John Moore for the DCPA NewsCenter.


American Mariachi. Photo by Adams VisCom
The company of ‘American Mariachi.’ Photo by Adams VisCom

American Mariachi, set in the 1970s American southwest, follows a young woman named Lucha who becomes determined to learn how to play mariachi music as a way of keeping her mother from slipping further into her dementia. This at a time when being a female mariachi player was unheard of in the United States. And that fictional character’s story is, in some ways, Perez’s story as well.  

“I’m so honored now, so many years later, to be able to tell the story of voices that have never been heard,” Perez said of her exhibit, which includes tales of pioneering women and includes actual suits worn by mariachi women at different times and places.

Asked what the Leonor Perez of 2018 might say to the Leonor Perez of 1973, she said with a smile: “I would tell that little girl to hang in there, because there’s going to be a very important place for the telling of this story — and that that little girl will be the person telling this story.”

Here’s more of our conversation with Dr. Perez:

John Moore: When did you start to become interested in researching women in mariachi?

Leonor Xochitl Perez: While I was a graduate student at UCLA and I was learning research skills, I began to ask the question: ‘When exactly did women start playing mariachi music as instrumentalists? Not as singers, but as instrumentalists?” So I applied my academic and research skills into the idea of discovering the answer to that question.

John Moore: How did you get started playing mariachi in the first place?

Leonor Xochitl Perez: In 1973, there were various forces that came together to promote the idea of providing Mexican music in the U.S. schools. That included the 1968 Bilingual Education Act. There was the Chicano civil-rights movement. The study of ethnic music and Chicano studies were emerging in universities. All of this was happening at the same time. For me, playing mariachi music at my school was somewhat of a lonely experience because some kids played it as an extracurricular activity, but I continued to play this music throughout my entire life.

John Moore: How did you become a leading mariachi researcher with everything else that was happening in your life?

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Leonor Xochitl Perez: Regardless of my degrees, or the family life, or where I moved, I was always playing mariachi music.

John Moore: Tell us how your life intersects with the story of the play.

Leonor Xochitl Perez: The play shows the struggles that women have had to endure in order to play this music, because it is a male-dominated genre — and I had some of those challenges as well. As a young girl growing up in East Los Angeles, I was expected to live out the life of a traditional Latina young woman, and that meant being domestic and looking forward to motherhood and being a wife. That meant being demure and being quiet. All of those things are good, but I felt like there was so much more for me in life. So when I found mariachi music, I was able to express myself in ways that were not allowed in my community. For example, in mariachi music, we give out an expressive yell during the performance of this music. At home, I was told to be quiet, to watch my words, to keep my voice down, to not ask so many questions. But when I was in mariachi music, whenever I felt it, I’d let a grito — a yell — come out, just to show my love for the music, whether it’s a romantic bolero or a traditional son.

John Moore: We don’t necessarily think of the arts, in many cultures, as patriarchal. Why was it so unheard of that a woman should play this music in the 1970s?

40049100881_5ecae8ed49_zLeonor Xochitl Perez: Well, it’s interesting, because mariachi music originates in the rural areas of Mexico. The ranchers would play mariachi music. Women would stay home. The ranchers were the ones who would work, and then go and relax at the bars after that. Some of them would play the music of the ranch. During the Mexican Revolution, there was this cultural renaissance where they had to rethink what the cultural identity of Mexico was going to be. So because it was very much focused on the people, and particularly more of the general population in Mexico, they brought forth a lot of the traditional and cultural practices of the country, and that included mariachi music. They brought it forth as a cultural symbol of national identity post-Mexican Revolution. And because it was male and for the males in the ranches, it just remained that way. It was the offering of this music in the school systems in the United States that actually opened the doors for women to begin to play this music in large numbers.

John Moore: How did being part of one of the very first school programs that allowed girls to play mariachi empower you?

Leonor Xochitl Perez: I was raised in a classical music program. I was first chair in the school orchestra, and we were expected to play delicately and blend in. But when I played mariachi music, I’d use my bow arm, and I’d grind into the strings right short of screeching with the intention to project that sound and to express its vibrancy. That’s something I wasn’t physically allowed to do in any other space when I was growing up. Also, in mariachi music, I was able to go places I wasn’t allowed to go. As a young Latina in a traditional family, we had to stay near home. But with a mariachi group, I was able to travel to different places — not just across the city or across the state. Across the country. Eventually, I got an internship in Washington D.C. after high school.

John Moore: What did you think when you heard that Jose Cruz Gonzalez had written American Mariachi, and that the Denver Center, one of the largest performing-arts organizations in the country, was going to be presenting this story on its largest stage?

Leonor Xochitl Perez: I was so thrilled to hear that finally the story and the challenges of women in mariachi will begin to be told on a mainstream level. But I was even more excited to hear that I was going to be given the opportunity to curate this lobby exhibit — because the truth is that women have been engaged in the mariachi music for more than 100 years. The play is a great start, because it talks about women in the U.S. coming together in a male-dominated field. But women have been in mariachi music since 1903 in Mexico.

John Moore: What about in the United States?

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Leonor Xochitl Perez: I found a group that started playing in 1967 in Alamo, Texas. And what’s really special about them is not only that they played in Alamo, but they were recruited to go entertain the troops in Vietnam. So they did their civic duty and traveled very far to continue the tradition of mariachi at the same time.

John Moore: Give us an overview of what your display covers.

A American Mariachi Lobby Display Leonor Perez 400 Photo by John MooreLeonor Xochitl Perez: The exhibit is a brief chronology of the 100 years of women in mariachi music. It focuses, specifically, from 1903 to the mid-’70s, when the play begins. It focuses on vintage photographs of the all-female groups that started from 1948 to 1953. There is also a really beautiful display of the uniforms they used back then. I have original suits from some of the groups that started back in the ’60s and ’70s. We don’t cover it here, but contemporary women are also making big strides and achieving quite a bit in the field of male mariachi music. For example, Mariachi Divas have been nominated for a Grammy eight times. They’re the only mariachi group that has ever received two American Grammys — so they have beaten the men.

John Moore: I want to know about Rosa, the gun-toting mariachi player you have pictured on the wall.

Leonor Xochitl Perez: So Rosa Quirino started playing mariachi music in 1903 as a 13-year-old. And she loved it so much that eventually, she led a predominantly male group. She was the only female, and she was the director of that group. But it was a rough environment for a woman, so she needed to carry a gun to protect herself. And, apparently, she had no reservations about using it when she needed to.

John Moore: How did you meet playwright José Cruz González and Music Director Cynthia Reifler Flores?

Leonor Xochitl Perez: I give presentations on the history of women in mariachi music wherever I’m invited. I’ve been all over the world, actually. I’ve been to Kazakhstan and to Ireland talking about women in mariachi. I first met José on March 11, 2015, when I was provided the opportunity to go to California State University Los Angeles, where he teaches, and he came and heard my talk. Also in the audience was Cindy, who I already knew because she has been actively a participant in the mariachi field since the 1980s. I knew her as a musician in Mariachi Reyna de Los Angeles, so I was very aware of her contributions to mariachi music in Los Angeles. That was the intersection. It’s just an honor for all of us who really are very passionate about this music that all of us can work together on this.

John Moore: What are your thoughts on the play? This is a very specific story about one family in the 1970s. So tell us how this is a story for all audiences.

Leonor Xochitl Perez: We have a population that’s aging right now, and we’re all going to have to address issues like dementia in our families. In that context, I think American Mariachi tells a story that’s general to the public at large. It tells the relationship between a daughter and an aging mother. One of the lines in the play is “music is memory.” And in this case, the music was the memory that became the glue that held them together. I think that’s very important. And I think it’s going to be relevant to many of us who are engaged in caring for our aging parents.

John Moore: And, finally, this play is going to go straight from Denver to San Diego to be seen by audiences there. What does it mean to you that this is just the start of this play’s journey?

Leonor Xochitl Perez: I think that as the Latino population grows, we have to reassess the cultural content that we put out nationally. And I think that Denver taking the step to honor this story and by showing it and investing in it, is really a tremendous step in demonstrating to the nation at large the importance of reaching this growing population. We have major contributions that we make in this country, and very few people know about that. But I think we become stronger as a nation when we reflect our diversity in our art. So I think it’s very important.

John Moore was named one of the 12 most influential theater critics in the U.S. by American Theatre Magazine in 2011. He has since taken a groundbreaking position as the Denver Center’s Senior Arts Journalist.

American Mariachi: Ticket information

160x160-amercian-mariachi-tempAt a glance: Lucha and Boli are ready to start their own all-female mariachi band in 1970s’ Denver, but they’ll have to fight a male-dominated music genre and pressure from their families to get it done. This humorous, heartwarming story about music’s power to heal and connect includes gorgeous live mariachi music..

  • Presented by the DCPA Theatre Company
  • Performances through Feb. 25
  • Space Theatre, Denver Performing Arts Complex
  • Tickets start at $30
  • Call 303-893-4100 or BUY ONLINE
  • Sales to groups of 10 or more click here

Previous NewsCenter Coverage of American Mariachi:
When Leonor Perez found mariachi, she found her true voice
American Mariachi
Perspectives: Music as a powerful memory trigger
Photos, video: Your first look at American Mariachi
American Mariachi
‘s second community conversation: Food, music and tough issues
Cast announced, and 5 things we learned at first rehearsal
American Mariachi
: Community conversation begins
Summit Spotlight video: José Cruz González, American Mariachi
2016 Summit: An infusion of invisible color and hidden voices
Vast and visceral: 2017-18 Theatre Company season
Denver Center taking new plays to new level in 2017-18

American Mariachi Lobby Display Leonor Perez. Photo by John MooreDr. Leonor Xochitl Perez. Photo by John Moore.

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