Mexico's female mariachis defy macho culture


Mariachi singing. Photo - Wikimedia/commons

With her hair tied back, large hoop earrings and high heels, Isabel Aguilar stood confidently in front of her five fellow mariachi musicians, all men, and sang to a mostly male crowd in a Mexico City square.

Aguilar, a violinist, is among the few female musicians in Plaza Garibaldi, a tourist spot famous for its roving mariachi bands, crowded restaurants and booze-fueled nightlife.

For the past 16 years, the 32-year-old mother-of-two has defied the quintessentially macho culture of mariachi music, the disdain of many of her peers and even the disapproval of her father, who was himself a mariachi musician.

"He would say that women should stay at home," Aguilar said of her father.

There are around 20 women among the 2,000 buskers registered with Plaza Garibaldi's Mexican Mariachi Union, still trying to break the male domination of this symbol of Mexican culture that emerged in the 19th century.

Mariachi is a style of folk music involving mostly stringed instruments and traditionally played by an all-male ensemble.

Some male mariachi musicians still have a hard time accepting the presence of women like Aguilar, who performs in a long brown skirt and the traditional embroidered "charro" jacket.

"I will refrain from commenting," said a veteran member of the famous Mariachi Vargas band as he sat on a bench watching Aguilar play her violin.

Women, he told a colleague, still have a "long path" before they reach the level of men.

Although not all male mariachi musicians look down on their female peers, several women mariachis say they have to battle to earn the respect of their colleagues, who accuse the women of evading their domestic chores, and sometimes exclude them from gigs.

Aguilar is one of the few female musicians to raise her voice against such discrimination.

"The hardest thing is this prevailing macho man culture in Mexico," declared the musician, who said she was engaged in a "silent battle" with her female colleagues.

"Men still carry around this idea of machismo. It's a culture that we haven't been able to get rid of."

Trailblazing women

Aguilar is not the first woman to sing her way into a man's world.

In the 1950s, trailblazing women broke the mold and formed the first all-female mariachi groups in Mexico.

Lupita Villa, an 80-year-old singer and guitar player, preciously keeps black and white photos of her band, "Las Coronelas," who filled theaters across Mexico and gained worldwide acclaim on international tours.

"We were surrounded by applause and praise for being women," said Villa, who plied her trade during the so-called golden era of mariachi music, competing with both male bands and other female groups like the "Estrellas de Mexico."

Back then, the women in the group could be more committed to the band because they weren't married, she recalled. But once they tied the knot, some members quit.

"Men are a bit jealous, they're a bit suspicious. Two of the girls got married and then the mariachi band ended. The husband kept her at home," said Villa, who never married or had children.

Villa, who still plays in a band called "Las Pioneras" with other veteran musicians, said women can win respect by being professional in their work.

A new mariachi school that opened near Plaza Garibaldi in October could attract more women to the world of mariachi music, Villa said, lamenting that all-female bands no longer exist in the capital.

Eleven of the 85 students are women and most, like Maria Teresa Gabriel, say the school will "prepare women well" to face any challenge they may meet after they complete the three-year program.

"How great would it be if more women come out and have the good fortune that we did to lift Mexico's name high?" Villa said.


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