Arizona mariachis

Mariachi is in high demand in the Valley

By Miranda VanHorn
December 1, 2015

Mariachi musicians and folklorico dancers in the Valley say there has been a rise in music programs celebrating the traditional folk music of Mexico as more people look to connect with their cultural roots.

Maria Leon, founder of the Primavera Folklorico Dance Company, attributed this rise to people “accepting the idea of being Mexican.”

“You are who you are when you’re born,” Leon said about the experience of being Mexican-American.


Arturo Carrasco performs mariachi at the Arizona Latino Arts and Culture Dia de los Muertos event in early November. (Photo by Miranda VanHorn)

Folklorico and mariachi are a way to “define what is Mexican through music and dance.” These traditions were handed down through the family as a way to learn a family’s history, Leon said.

Before the civil rights movement, the Phoenix area was separated into two parts, Leon said. All of the people of color lived south of Washington, she said.

It was a place for “Mexicans to be Mexicans,” Leon said. “I lived through it, so I know,” she continued.

Then the civil rights movement happened and “the connection to Mexico had morphed. The Chicano had one foot in each country” because people were encouraged to embrace their Mexican culture again, Leon said. Everything was changing and people wanted to learn how to write down their music so it could never be lost, Leon explained.

“The Mexican will always find a way to make due, but we need a unified voice,” Leon said.

She said unification could come from formal music education.

Carlos Castaneda, teacher for a mariachi group at Arizona State University and instructor at  Rosie’s House, a free music academy for youth in Phoenix, talked about some of the difficulties mariachi teachers experience.

“A lot of mariachi musicians do not know how to read music,”Castaneda said. “Many of these musicians learned how to play their instrument through mariachi music.”

This means that they learned to play by listening to the music, not by learning to read and comprehend the notes on paper. This can make directing an entire ensemble more difficult.

Learning through playing can contribute to a lack of advanced players in the genre. “Most people have not experienced Mariachi in a professional way,” Castaneda said.

Players know the old standards, such as “Canta, Canta, Canta,” “La Llorona” and “La Bomba.” Teaching anything outside of that becomes increasingly more difficult if players cannot read music, Castaneda said.

Castaneda is getting his master’s degree in music education at ASU.

“There is a lack of educated Mariachi teachers,” Castaneda said. Very few colleges and universities teach music education students how to play and/or teach Mariachi music, he said.

Because of this gap, Castaneda stands out and gets many opportunities to perform and teach in the Valley. Mariachi is traditionally played at events including funerals, weddings and a variety of parties.

Anarbol Martinez is a student of Castaneda’s and plays trumpet for the ASU mariachi group, made up of ASU student and members of the community of all ages.

No one plays Mariachi lethargically, Martinez said. “We are all passionate about what we play.”

What motivates me to play with this awesome group is because of my culture and heritage,” Martinez said.

Martinez had never been able to be a part of a mariachi group until he came to ASU, but he had grown up listening to it his entire life.

Mariachi musician Eduardo Salazar is interested in joining the ASU mariachi group next year. Salazar was able to perform mariachi when he was in high school, and has had a passion for playing ever since.

Salazar was the president of the mariachi club, Maryvale Mariachi, at Maryvale High School last year. He said his school found it challenging to find a director that fit its needs.

That’s when Maryvale’s band director at the time, Kristin Miller, stepped in.

The class was full of students familiar with the cultural aspects of performing Mariachi, Salazar said, and Miller helped teach the students the technical fundamentals of playing.

“We encouraged ourselves and others to have fun and engage in the Mexican culture,” Salazar said. “It felt good that others were interested in my culture, too.”

Every year the Maryvale Mariachi group plays the Phoenix Union Scholarship Gala, in addition to performances for the school.

Arizona musician Peter Verdugo said that teaching mariachi is all about having the experience, and less about the formal education.

“There are some programs in areas of Phoenix that are very good because they are taught by local mariachi musicians,” Verdugo said.

Mariachi musicians get work based on their skills and, more importantly, who knows you, Verdugo said.

When choosing a mariachi instructor, Rosie’s House looks to “employ instructors who can embody the life and culture of mariachi,” said Becky Ballard, artistic and executive director at Rosie’s House.

Ballard said there is a “renewed public interest” for mariachi education in the Valley and that is why Rosie’s House created a mariachi program.

The group from Rosie’s House has played at many community events, including at the Greater Phoenix Chamber of Commerce.

High schools in the area are also putting together programs. Mariachi and folklorico have a rich history in Phoenix and, as the map shows below, programs are beginning to pop up all around in the Valley.


mirandaheadshotMiranda is a senior at the Cronkite School pursuing a bachelor’s degree in journalism and a master’s in mass communication. Her work has been published in The Arizona Republic, SheKnows and the Downtown Devil.