Vivan los mariachis

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Esther Cepeda
Monday, December 5, 2011
— Last week, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) added mariachi music to its “Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity” list. Now these musicians with their sparkly skinny pants and wide-brimmed hats are enshrined in the world’s repository of traditional cultural arts along with Chinese shadow puppetry, Portuguese Fado singing, and Tsiattista, the “poetic dueling” of Cyprus.

That such a humble form of musical storytelling could come to the attention of the powers that preserve the world’s cultural knowledge came as a surprise to me, even though, by all rights, I should be a pre-eminent scholar on the history and present state of mariachi music. In his day, my maternal grandfather, Refugio “Cuco” Calderon, was a famous practitioner of the musical form’s regional variations, so I have mariachi music in my veins. He is lovingly remembered by fans who have gone so far as to post on YouTube the songs of his trio, Los Hermanos Calderon, his pairings with other famous musicians of his time, along with album covers and old publicity shots.

I, unfortunately, never got the chance to gain a full appreciation of my grandfather’s specific contributions to the art form because the always-on-the-road life of a hard-drinking, hard-playing musico killed him young and I never knew him. Our family owns but two of his albums.

It’s both an honor and a tragedy to have a part of your culture be honored in such a way—the whole reason for UNESCO to put the spotlight on these deeply meaningful traditions is to safeguard them from neglect by people who enjoy their cultural artifacts but take them for granted enough that they are at real peril of extinction.

Although mariachis spell p-a-r-t-y in any language and are an instantly recognizable emblem of infectious Mexican joy, they’re not getting their props at home or abroad. The Los Angeles Times recently reported that in Mexico City’s Plaza Garibaldi, the bands of mariachis that used to clog the streets playing for tourists and natives have hit hard times due to stalled tourism and general economic malaise.

In the U.S., home to the largest population of Mexicans outside of Mexico, mariachis’ livelihoods have been no better with Hispanic communities suffering with higher rates of unemployment and poverty than the U.S. average. Gigs for mariachis will surely bounce back—these musicians have been surviving cyclical downturns for ages. And, with globalization changing the way cultures are shared and swapped, the next big mariachi craze could emerge almost anywhere.

Jorge Aquino, director of the Mexican Music School in Mexico City, told CNNMexico.com last year, “Now, including in foreign countries like the United States, Japan and Colombia, there are mariachi schools, mariachi classes, mariachi degrees.”

How cool is that? That’s fantasy-caliber information. It would be awesome to someday travel to a far-off place such as Japan and spontaneously be serenaded with the mariachi standard “Cielito Lindo,” the musicians singing heartily, with perfect Spanish pronunciations, to me and my non-Spanish-speaking sons and husband.

It would be ironic and, somewhere, Cuco Calderon would be proud.

Esther Cepeda is a columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group. Her email address is estherjcepeda@washpost.com.

Last updated: 7:10 pm Thursday, December 13, 2012

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