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How Mariachi Is Changing San Diego

Mariachi is a very important, even ubiquitous part of the culture of tens of thousands of people living in San Diego — especially the first-, second-, third-, fourth- (and more) generation Mexican-Americans for whom mariachi represents an immediate and powerful connection with their cultural heritage. Think about it for a second: My great-grandparents and grandparents were born in Russia, Ireland and Sweden, so I’m third- or fourth-generation American, but I still prefer Swedish-style pancakes (great-grandma’s recipe) and keep some Russian nesting dolls on the shelf of my house. So, even though my family is mixed in this way and I am not so closely connected with these countries, I still like to think about and keep reminders of where I came from.

Now imagine someone born in San Diego whose parents or grandparents were born and raised in Mexico. Living in San Diego may seem like “almost Mexico” at times, but American culture quickly overcomes younger generations through kids forgetting how to speak the language of their grandparents after two to three generations, eating more McDonald’s and pizza than tacos and mole, and the like. So, families find themselves with more than just a “generation gap” to overcome, but also a “culture gap” and even a “language gap.” For these families, seeing and hearing a mariachi band immediately and powerfully reconnects all generations of the family in ways that my nesting dolls only pretend to, especially with the educational mariachi programs we offer in parts of San Diego and most prominently the South Bay. Imagine a parent who speaks very little English attending a parent-teacher conference. It’s intimidating, and many parents simply avoid interacting with their child’s school if they can’t speak with their teachers or if they don’t feel a connection with their school. That’s bad for everyone. But when they see their child performing in a school-based mariachi, they immediately feel more connected. I have had many students at Southwestern College tell me that their parents had never visited any of their schools before, but they would now attend the mariachi concerts we held at the college. It’s good for the kids, it’s good for the school and it’s good for the community as a whole to have culturally relevant programs such as these that bring generations together and focus on education.

For the majority of San Diegans, listening to the mariachis at Old Town is probably the extent of their interaction with mariachi. But I’d wager that even the casual mariachi observer is glad to know that their city and region is home to a thriving community of youth and professional mariachis, just as we’re happy and proud that San Diego has a world-class symphony, opera, art museums, zoos, amateur and professional sports teams, etc. Even if we don’t go to games very often, or only visit Balboa Park when relatives are in town, or only check out the symphony when there’s a guest artist we like, it is still a point of pride for us all that we have such organizations in our home town. Or at least, whether you’ve thought about it or not, I am certain that we would all feel a little diminished if any of these were to go away.

I’m so happy that the San Diego Opera is producing “Cruzar la Cara de la Luna [1].” The story behind it is really creative and touching. It uses the metaphor of the monarch butterflies migrating thousands of miles from central Mexico up to Canada — a migration which takes an entire year, even though the life span of the monarch is only about one month. This means that the complete migration (Mexico to Canada -to Mexico) takes up to 12 generations of butterflies to complete, so it is the 12th-great-grandchild who returns to the birthplace of their ancestor. “Cruzar la Cara de la Luna” uses this metaphor for an extended family that begins in Mexico, with younger generations living in the U.S. who return home to reconnect with their ancestors. It’s a very moving and universal story.

For me, as a mariachi advocate, this piece of music represents a big and important “next step” in the evolution of mariachi music. Mariachi began as European court-music in the Renaissance (just like classical music), then evolved into a folk music in Mexico and transitioned into a professional art-music in the 1940s. At this transition to the modern mariachi, mariachis accompanied famous Mexican superstars in the Golden Age of Mexican cinema and on recordings, and most of these first singers/actors were trained classical singers before the modern mariachi existed. So mariachis backed up these “classical” singers and created the modern mariachi that we know today. In this way, the new “mariachi opera” that we will hear Saturday is really a reconnection with mariachi’s past, or as I prefer to think of it, a new direction for mariachi that respects and honors the tradition from which it has emerged.

So San Diego, thanks to the San Diego Opera, is participating in an important evolutionary step for mariachi. And that’s exciting! Even if there isn’t a wave of mariachi operas created (maybe there will be?), this is still important for the music of mariachi. And I would be remiss to not say that it is important for the San Diego Opera to demonstrate that opera itself is also a living, breathing, evolving and culturally relevant art-form today. It is incredibly powerful to see a live performance of “Aida,” or “The Magic Flute,” or “La Bohème,” just like it is amazing and powerful to see the great masterworks in the museums of Balboa Park. And we also recognize that contemporary artists are creating new masterworks today, including new operas. If you haven’t visited the San Diego Opera you really should; the music, the sets, the costumes and the stories are truly amazing. Hopefully this mariachi event will bring in new audiences who have never been, and bring them back for the next operas too.

The San Diego Opera has done something to bring together different cultural communities, students and professional musicians, not to mention their sponsors who are involved with making this production possible. I hope this becomes a model for other arts organizations to collaborate, share resources, bring people together in new ways. It might be scary to think about breaking out of the box like this, but this is precisely what I feel arts organizations should be doing: bringing people together, creating new art, enriching everyone’s community. This has already created a new bond between our local mariachi community and the San Diego Opera. I hope that there will be more opportunities for us to work together. “Mariachi Week” was spearheaded by the Opera, and we are having a dozen or more mariachi performances all over San Diego this week. It would be great to see this tradition continue year after year.

Jeff Nevin [2] is a composer and a trumpet player who founded the mariachi program at Southwestern College.


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