Since its beginnings, mariachi music has been the music of the countryside and its inhabitants—a much-loved local and regional musical genre. But by the late twentieth century this changed, as mariachi music became a significant force in U.S. popular culture. It influenced the Tejano music that arose in the United States and helped to solidify the latter as a serious contender in the American music scene. Mariachi music infiltrated into American ceremonies and rituals such as weddings, masses, birthdays, and other festive events that celebrate a rite of passage. Numerous American women of Hispanic descent have joined mariachi groups, in effect keeping alive this Mexican tradition in the United States. As a result, Americans have become aware of Mexican cultural identities and rural traditions that mesh with those indigenous to the United States. Mariachi music conveys stories with which people readily identify. It highlights great moments in peoples' lives through songs dealing with the rites of courtship, rural life and its people, animals, plants, and other interesting themes.
Popular folk belief has it that mariachi music originated in Mexico in the nineteenth century. Specifically, people have argued that it was born in the Mexican state of Jalisco during the ill-fated reign of the Emperor Maximilian, a Frenchman, in the 1860s. There has always been some dispute regarding the origin of the word mariachi. According to legend mariachi is a variation of the French word "mariage," which means "wedding." This was how many people believe the tradition of mariachis playing at weddings began. This line of thinking insists that mariachi was a term coined by the French themselves after watching the musicians perform at weddings. A more accurate scholarly argument maintains that the word mariachi and the music associated with it has roots in Mexico itself as opposed to having European connections. Nevertheless, European instruments were adopted by the natives, and despite the ambiguity of the origins of mariachi music, one thing is clear—it was a brand of music that was created by and for the people of the rural areas of Mexico.
The mariachi group as it has been known in the mid-to late-twentieth century, then, began in Jalisco in the nineteenth century. But the genre came into its own and penetrated into American popular culture during the 1950s, when mariachi groups became a kind of musical orchestra with their own recordings and films. These groups acquired new musical tastes and styles while, at the same time, retaining their traditional base of support—though they gained new ones in the process, especially in the United States. Tejano music became very popular in the United States in the late twentieth century, and the music of the mariachi had much to do with that success. Popular Tejano singers, like Selena, utilized the beautiful harmony of mariachi music. Mariachis also influenced the Catholic Church in the United States, specifically the Sunday Mass. Many Spanish masses in the United States have incorporated mariachis into their Sunday rituals, lending a new musical taste to the way Mass is conducted in the American Catholic Church.
A parallel development has been the number of American women involved in mariachi music. American women of Hispanic descent have increasingly become a part of mariachi groups since the mid-twentieth century. Women are considered to be on the same musical footing with men with regard to their playing, singing, and dancing, and in their overall dedication to express Mexican and American folk traditions through the medium of music. Mariachis have performed at many American festive occasions, including weddings, masses, concerts with symphony orchestras, fiestas (par-ties), and even funerals. The musical interests of the mariachis have expanded to include both classical and popular music.
Because of the growth of mariachi music Americans have grown both aware and appreciative of it and its themes. The stories told by the mariachis in their music have encouraged Americans of both Hispanic and non-Hispanic descent to look at the simpler things in life and enjoy them while they last. Indeed, the music of the mariachi has had a positive impact not only on the musical arena of the United States, but also the religious and social arena as well. The music and lyrics are simple but contain clear-cut depictions of rural life and all the symbols, pleasures, trials, and tribulations that come with that lifestyle. Perhaps it is those themes that best reflect what both Mexicans and Americans long to have—an understanding of the land, nature, and most importantly, love. All these themes will continue to be represented as long as the mariachi remains dedicated to representing Mexico's fascinating cultural heritage and sharing it with, and in the process enriching, America's popular culture.
Harpole, Patricia W., and Mark Fogelquist. Los Mariachis!: An Introduction to Mexican Mariachi Music. Danbury, Connecticut, World Music Press, 1989.
Jauregui, Jesus. El Mariachi: Simbolo Musical de Mexico. Mexico, Banpais, 1990.
Rafael, Hermes. Origen y Historia del Mariachi. Mexico, Katun, 1983.