Today, Mariachi music is an unmistakable symbol of Mexico and Mexican culture throughout the world. There are Mariachi ensembles in the UK, Croatia, Ecuador, Egypt, and Sweden, not to mention Mexico and the United States. Few people realize that Mariachi music as we know it today only recently evolved as part of the political, social, and economic developments of twentieth century Mexican history. The story of Mariachi is a story of revolution, urbanization, industrialization, yearning for the past, and the quest to forge a uniquely Mexican national identity. In many ways, to know the story of Mariachi is to know the story of Mexico itself.
No one is sure where the word “Mariachi” came from. According to one oft-repeated but discredited legend, the word “Mariachi” is derived from the French marriage because when the French briefly conquered Mexico in the 1860s (while US was too busy with the Civil War to enforce the Monroe Doctrine), the French liked to hire musicians to perform this music at weddings. In fact, the word predates the French occupation of Mexico, and might even have its origins in one of the native languages of Mexico’s indigenous peoples. The style of music that would become Mariachi arose in the Jalisco region of Mexico, and was also called son jaliscience. Field hands who worked on haciendas originally performed this music, especially to mark special occasions and to accompany dancing. Apparently, workers who could also play music were paid more than workers who could not. This early predecessor of Mariachi used mostly string instruments such as violins, guitars, and harps, and performers usually wore the plain white clothes of Mexican peasants.
This began to change under the reign of Porfirio Diaz, the president who famously ran on a “no reelection” campaign only to serve seven terms in office. Diaz attempted to bring the industrial revolution to Mexico, and while the economy thrived under his rule, he also oversaw a corrupt and often brutally oppressive political system. Mexico had always been a land of staggering economic inequality, but by the end of the Diaz era, 95% of Mexican land was owned by less than 5% of the population, and after Diaz blatantly gave up any pretense of democracy during the election of 1910 (he threw his opponent in jail on election day), the country descended into a revolution and civil war that would last ten years.
Industrialization, urbanization, and the Mexican Revolution forever changed the hacienda way of life that had given rise to the son jaliscience. As the old haciendas faltered in the new economic and political reality, field workers were let go, and many of them moved to cities in search of new opportunities. The ones who could play music often used their skills to earn a living or supplement their incomes in the new world in which they found themselves. New influences began to transform the old style of music: cross pollination with jazz, Cuban music, and European waltzes and polkas led to the introduction of trumpets to the traditional ensemble of strings and gave rise to the modern Mariachi sound.
While Mariachi had begun to take on its modern sound by the end of the Mexican Revolution, audiences today would be puzzled by Mariachi performances of this period: Mariachi was not yet seen as a symbol of Mexico, but as the sound of humble urban street performers, and the brilliant costumes Mariachis wear today were nowhere to be seen. Check back tomorrow to discover where today’s Mariachi look and status came from, and to find out how the Mariachi tradition continues to evolve today!
To hear some fantastic Mariachi music in Houston, come to the Houston Symphony’s Mariachi Cobre concert this Friday! You can get tickets here.