AMERICAN MARIACHI — Soundtrack of Life, Love & Remembrance

By Marcos Nájera

There are many wild and colorful stories chronicling the true origins of mariachi music. Some stories credit the Spanish explorer Hernan Cortés with bringing theatre orchestra musicians with him from overseas when he landed in what is now modern-day Mexico. Meanwhile, others speculate that the word ‘mariachi’ comes from a now-extinct indigenous Mexican language. In written form, the word reportedly started to appear around the year 1852 — specifically in a letter written by a priest named Cosme Santa Anna.

Fast forward over a century later to Northern California. That’s where you’d find a young José Cruz González who’d fallen in love with mariachi music. He even remembers the first album that touched his heart as a boy back in the 1960s.

“It was a record that my mother played by Javier Solis,” recalls González. “She had to clean the house — we all had to clean the house. One of our first homes was an abandoned bracero barracks. And she always had her records playing.”

González grew up in the farming village of Watsonville with his mom, Maria Jesus González, and an extended family who made their living by picking crops in the countryside. All the while, mariachi music would play in the background.

“I didn’t stop doing fieldwork until I left for college. But as time went on, I even started to learn to play mariachi music as an adult,” laughs González. “I audited a class. I started on guitar and then moved on to other instruments. But I didn’t even know what the terminology was. When they’d say they were ‘starting on the downbeat,’ I had no clue what they meant. And so, it was like learning the most difficult language on earth. That’s how unprepared I was!”

Gonzales would listen to his music teachers tell him about their memories of mariachi. The stories reminded him of home and the people confronting life’s everyday challenges underscored by these beloved Mexican folk songs. It all inspired González, who is now an accomplished playwright, to pen American Mariachi.

The theatrical comedy tells the story of a Latina named Lucha. Her mom battles dementia while Lucha tries to figure out how to help.

For González, it’s a storyline he knows all too well. His own mom was diagnosed with early dementia last year.

“My brothers and I wonder what are the next stages,” says González. “As she forgets more and more.”

But that’s exactly where music and theater can play important roles says González. He is quick to point out that these art forms can help people, himself included, reimagine tough times in life.

Lucha, the play’s protagonist, does exactly that. When she notices that her mom’s memory starts fading and even the simplest of subjects become tough to talk about, a bold idea strikes Lucha. She decides the best way to communicate with a hurting parent is to turn to music’s healing power.

So, she forms an all-girl mariachi band. After all, mariachi had always been her mom’s favorite music.

Here’s the catch. González set the play in the 1970s during a time when macho attitudes towards women in music reigned supreme, the mariachi community notwithstanding.

“It’s a tradition that’s passed on from father to son,” explains González. “So, these women take on that challenge and all

heck breaks loose for them! But in the end, these ladies do it all wonderfully and really put it together, because music is memory.”

American Mariachi was originally commissioned by and developed at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts Theatre Company in cooperation with San Diego’s Old Globe in 2015. Before its upcoming Arizona Theatre Company premier, the show was previously workshopped at Cal State Los Angeles, where González currently teaches.

American Mariachi opens this April at the Herberger Theater Center ( |CST

Photos courtesy of Arizona Theatre Company


  1. Josue Romo says:

    Liked everything hope you guys do good.

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