Many Arizona visitors and residents only know mariachi superficially, when strolling mariachi performers serenade patrons tableside in Mexican restaurants. But the traditions of mariachi music – which originated in Jalisco, Mexico – go much deeper, expressing the joy, tragedy and passion of the culture.
Present-day troupes are comprised of participants of all skill levels, from children to adult masters who are keeping the music and dance alive. Along with history, heritage and skills, workshops cultivate self-confidence, pride, commitment and discipline. Joyful, family-friendly performances are a wonderful introduction to this traditional centuries-old, south-of-the-border sound.
What began as a recreational class of six students in 2005 is now a well-known folklorico group in the Valley. Phoenix-based Ballet Folklorico Quetzalli-AZ is a 60-person troupe led by experienced dancer, Vanessa Ramirez. Catch colorfully clad performers at such venues as the Phoenix Public Library and the Chandler Center for the Arts.
Folklorico reflects rich artistic influences from other countries that were brought into Mexico, such as dances from African slaves, polka from Germany during the reign of Maximillian and Carlotta, flamenco from Spain, the minuet from France and movements from China. Ballet Folklorico Esperanza founders Al and Kathi Soria teach Phoenix area children dances from all 32 states across the country to foster an appreciation of the rich melting pot that is Mexico.
Based in South Tucson, the award-winning Ballet Folklorico Tapatio was established in 1997 and is recognized as one of the finest folklorico organizations in the U.S. Under the direction of Jose Luis Baca, the troupe has traveled extensively throughout the U.S. and Mexico, performing at festivals, universities and Walt Disney World.
As part of the city’s Hispanic Heritage Month, the three-day Chandler Mariachi Festival is an exuberant celebration of music, dance, food and history. In addition to free public performances in “Garibaldi Square” on Friday evening, which recreates the famed Mexico City destination in AJ Chandler Park, there are mariachi workshops for youth during the day on Friday and Saturday. On Sunday, Chandler Center for the Arts’ patrons are treated to the sights and sounds of nationally known performers.
The strength of the multicultural communities of Southern Arizona – particularly those of Mexican-American heritage – attract 35,000 attendees to the four-day Tucson International Mariachi Conference each spring. Tucson’s passion for mariachi music is said to have begun in the early 1960s when a priest with a vast collection of mariachi music, Monsignor Arsenio Carrillo, played a few songs for Father Charles Rourke. The group enjoyed early support from homegrown singer Linda Ronstadt.
Best known for its birding and boating, Patagonia State Park is also home to the Annual Mariachi Festival at Patagonia Lake State Park. Its roots date back to an initiative in 1997, when then-director of the Arizona State Parks championed the community’s location for a spring event. Local professionals, high school bands and traditional mariachi dancers entertain; there’s a piñata for the kids and authentic foods, including Sonoran hot dogs.
Perhaps curiously, the Flagstaff Summertime Tardeada is held in conjunction with an oldies car show during June. The heavenly highlight of the weekend, produced by Flagstaff Nuestras Racies, is the Sunday morning Mass Mariachi at Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church with the music of Mariachi Sol Azteca de Tucson and ballet folklorico performances. Following mass, worshipers are invited to attend a menudo and posole (tripe and hominy stew) breakfast fundraiser to benefit the church’s heritage renovation fund.