Mariachi music is deeply rooted in the Mexican American community. It is a nostalgic bridge to the past, but it also remains an unwavering element today in the cultural traditions of families at baptisms, birthdays, weddings and funerals.
This is the music with which playwright Jose Cruz Gonzalez grew up; his parents were great listeners. And it was the music he would learn to play many years later, an experience that would inspire his play “American Mariachi”, which made its Chicago debut at the Goodman Theater in a co-production with the Dallas Theater Center and as part of of the Chicago Latino Theater Alliance’s Destinos Festival.
It all started when Gonzalez noticed that a group of mariachi students were performing on the campus of California State University in Los Angeles, where he taught theater arts for 30 years. “I found out that mariachi was a class in the music department and approached the teacher, and for the next 10 years I took classes,” he says.
Gonzalez was the first to admit that he had “no musical talent in his body”, but he had a desire to learn and became proficient on the guitarron, the great acoustic bass guitar that is a staple of mariachi bands. . He also studied the culture of mariachi, how it is traditionally passed down from father to son and why it is an important aspect of the Mexican-American community and how it is the soundtrack to many lives.
Another player once mentioned to Gonzalez that she and her band had performed for an elderly woman on her birthday: “She described how when they played a certain song this woman would come alive and sing. This idea of music as memory stuck with me.
“American Mariachi” would be born from this idea. Set in the 1970s, the story revolves around a young woman Lucha (Tiffany Solano) caring for her mother, Amalia (Gigi Cervantes), who suffers from dementia. One day she plays an old record of mariachi songs that awakens the memory of her mother, who in turn inspires Lucha, against her father’s will, to create an all-female mariachi band – something unheard of in the past. 70s. The cast also includes Lucy Godínez, Amanda Raquel Martinez, Molly Hernandez, Gloria Vivica Benavides, Eréndira Izguerra and Christopher Llewyn Ramirez.
“Much of the story is about the strength and determination of a young woman to pursue her dreams, but it is also about a family struggling with this disease and a married couple who have separated. Says Gonzalez, whose own mother suffered from dementia.
“I think Jose really captures the dynamic of a fractured family and weaves all of these narratives together in a really beautiful, heartwarming and heartbreaking way,” said director Henry Godinez. “And then there is the music which is just amazing.”
The play is steeped in mariachi music and features members of the Chicago band Sones from Mexico City performing on stage with the actors who learned the instruments for their roles. The co-founder of Sones, Victor Pichardo, is the musical director. (Sones also teamed up with the Goodman Theater on the beautiful musical piece “Zulema,” which toured city parks in August.)
Mariachi dates back to the 1800s in the countryside of various parts of western Mexico and has evolved over time into what Pichardo calls “small orchestras” with a rhythm section, a brass section, and a string section.
“Mariachi is happy music but also very passionate music. I think that’s what pleases the listener, ”Pichardo says, adding,“ I think ‘American Mariachi’ opens hearts, minds and doors for people who want to be a part of this tradition.
Godinez agrees that one of the show’s goals is to dispel stereotypes about what mariachi is: “Through the show, we realize that mariachi isn’t just something you hear in restaurants. and that drives you crazy. It actually has deep folk roots and has many different genres mingled with it, including romantic boleros and polkas.
“American Mariachi” was scheduled to open at the Dallas Theater Center in March 2020 but has been canceled due to the pandemic. Godinez says he hopes people will feel “a real joy to be back in the theater”.
Gonzalez adds, “I’m so happy he’s finally on stage with this cast of actors from Chicago and Dallas. This room is filled with such hope, and we really need it right now given all the challenges we have all faced over the past few years. He celebrates family, he celebrates life, he celebrates music, he celebrates a culture.