A mariachi made up of students from California’s top university with a multicultural ensemble is the last thing one would think of when mentioning such a genre of traditional Mexican music. But it does exist. It is called Mariachi de Uclatlán, and in addition to being one of the most deeply rooted programs at UCLA’s music school, it functions as a historical repository of mariachi music and as a way to bring second and third-generation Mexican-Americans closer to their roots.
The ensemble is part of the University of California, Los Angeles’ ethnic studies branch of musicology and, believe it or not, has been performing Mexican music on U.S. soil for more than 60 years.
And although it is a multicultural mariachi, formed at a prestigious university by students from all backgrounds and different majors, they are far from being a cultural appropriation, because as Elías Rodríguez, ensemble assistant, says, mariachi has transcended time and borders.
One example of this is Saveena Patel, an ethnomusicology student from California with South Asian roots playing in the mariachi and singing iconic songs in Spanish.
“I’m south Asian so I’m clearly not Mexican but at the musicology major we learn a lot about cultural appropriation and the last thing I would want to do is to appropriate a culture because no culture deserves to be appropriated. We make sure to really learn about the music and history. I would say that rather than doing a cultural appropriation, we are making a cultural appreciation,” said Saveena, who has been part of the ensemble for almost a year and is currently the lead guitarist and assistant student director of the group.
The origin of Mariachi de Uclatlán
It is not surprising that the first mariachi with academic and professional training outside of Mexico was born in California. This state has the largest population of Hispanics/Latinos in the country, representing 36% of the total population according to the last census.
Mariachi de Uclatán, the first of its kind, was born in 1961 as part of the ethnomusicology department and for the past 30 years has been under the leadership of Jesús “Chuy” Guzmán, who is part of Mariachi Los Camperos, a group that in 2020 won the Grammy for Best Regional Mexican Album.
During all this time, the goal of “Chuy”, as his students affectionately call him, has been one: to instill the history of Mexican music and, as a consequence, to make an academic record of how this Mexican musical genre has evolved since its appearance in the 1800s.
“I work with the students giving them the instruction and encouragement to learn our mariachi music,” as “Chuy” believes that learning and preserving the culture of Mexican music is just as important as learning and studying orchestral music or jazz.
Thanks to the help of Elías, he has been able to make an academic record of the history that has been useful for other Mexican music programs at other universities, such as Texas Tech.
“I try to teach them about the music that is being lost, the music that is no longer heard. In the last few years, we have filtered so much into commercialism that we no longer know the music of the mariachi. I believe it is my duty to give them the material and the songs that founded mariachi years ago,” said Chuy.
Mariachi as a way to get closer to its roots
But “Chuy’s” work has not only been the professionalization and creation of a historical mariachi archive. Indirectly, involving students in learning the history of Mexican music has, in some cases, brought them closer to their roots while in others has helped them to explore Mexican culture; one that would seem distant from their origins.
As it happened with Saveena, who at the beginning of her musicology career did not know what mariachi music was and today declares herself totally in love not only with the genre but also with Mexican culture.
“I came to UCLA actually not knowing what mariachi music was”, but when she started studying cultural ensembles it crossed her path, so she decided to explore the genre as a way to broaden her knowledge not only as a musician but as a Spanish beginner student.
As for Alexis Romero, becoming the ensemble’s lead guitarrón and studying the history of mariachi helped her learn more about her roots while also helping her discover her passion.
“As a second-generation Mexican American I’ve never got like super connected to my Mexican culture but being in the Mariachi de Uclatlán and working alongside “Chuy” made me feel more connected to my roots,” explained Alexis who is currently pursuing a degree in Education and plans to combine her studies in music to become a music teacher and share her knowledge of Mexican music to new generations.
But just as the program was a total discovery for Saveena or Alexis, there are students like César Puente, current violinist, who knew from a young age that he wanted to study with “Chuy” in the UCLA mariachi.
Today he is not only the student director, but also one of the most experienced mariachis in the ensemble, and, thanks to that, he gives a personal touch to each performance of the group.
As Elías and “Chuy” explained, Mariachi de Uclatlán wants to change the idea of mariachi as just another commodified product. For them, the music, as well as the lyrics and the way of playing of each of its members, is part of a philosophy that responds more to a feeling and an atmosphere of joy generated by each of the chords.
“When the public or our students listen to us, they feel closer to home or remember their grandparents that played them music when they were younger. We help our community, we connect with our cultural origins”, said Elías Rodríguez.
And if you were wondering about the colorful suits they use in every performance, let me tell you that the entire outfit is from Mexico. “Chuy” has had each of the suits custom-made for the members so that they can proudly wear not only a super Mexican outfit but also the colors of their university.