The LeAnn Rimes of mariachi music

Talented and determined, Nydia Rojas is forging a pop career while remaining true to her roots

Olivia Rojas knew she was in trouble when she saw the look on her 10-year-old daughter's face that morning. In the annals of the age-old power play between parents and their children, her suggestion that Nydia get up and sing at a little taco stand not too far from their Los Angeles home would not go down as brilliant strategy. She had meant for her daughter to see that it wasn't easy--becoming a mariachi singer--and had hoped her plan would put an end to her daughter's dream.

Olivia had always known that her talented daughter would end up doing something big--the kid was just too smart. At age five, Nydia left Guadalajara with her mother and moved to Los Angeles, where it only took her three months to start reading, writing, and speaking English. When plans were being made for Nydia to return to Guadalajara for her all-important first communion celebration, Olivia discovered that her daughter could no longer remember Spanish, and Nydia relearned it in a matter of weeks.

Olivia was proud of her daughter, but she just didn't understand her current infatuation with singing mariachi music. Her family had always known she was artistic, but thought of her as a dancer; she'd been taking dance lessons since she was a little girl and really seemed to throw herself into it.

And you expect a young girl to have dreams of being a glamorous pop star, like Selena. But mariachi? The theme music of Mexican restaurants across America? Yes, it was the folkloric heartbeat of Mexico, but it was the music of a different generation, one whose time had passed. Olivia never thought that the family's favorite movie--the old charro flick Nosotros los Pabres (We the Poor)--would lead to this. Nydia had always loved "Amorcito Corazon," the song in the scene where the little boy has been burned to death, and his mother is holding him, and she and the great Pedro Infante are singing with tears in their eyes. That was the only song she'd ever bothered to really learn. Now, however, this mariachi thing had become more than just a matter of a favorite song from a beloved movie. At some point, Olivia thought that the harsh reality of performing in front of folks--the condescending smiles, the conversations that continue even through your best work, the heckling--would show her daughter how hard the life of a singer would really be.

Clearly, Olivia had been dead wrong about the effect her strategy would have on her daughter. Instead of backing down from her mother's suggestion that she perform at the taco stand, the headstrong Nydia was already on her feet, a look of triumph in her eyes. It was obvious: This was the kind of opportunity she'd been waiting for.

"She was just playing around," Nydia, now 17, recalls with the laughter of a triumphant child. "But I was like, 'Don't dare me, Mom, you know I'll do it,'" and Olivia found herself in the unenviable parental position of trying to argue against accepting a scheme she herself had devised.

"No, no, no," Nydia remembers telling her mom. "You already said it." She pauses. "I was real stubborn back then," she admits, then pauses for a longer time before laughing again. "I still am."

At the restaurant, Nydia asked the band playing there if it was familiar with the only song she knew well enough to attempt in public. "I sang 'Amorcito Corazon,'" she recalls. "When the owner heard me, he hired me right there to sing a weekly gig on Sundays." Nydia sang during the restaurant's most laid-back and contemplative time, Sunday from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. "I even got paid," she says with a pride familiar to most musicians.

In many ways her own journey--bouncing back and forth between her roots in Guadalajara and the great melting pot of Southern California--parallels the early development of the music she loves, albeit in reverse. While Nydia traveled from urban L.A. to the simpler environment of Guadalajara, mariachi began in the rural area centered around the southern part of the state of Jalisco at the end of the 19th century and benefited from the cultural changes wrought by the development of a unified Mexico.

Much of this change arose from the Mexican Revolution, a period of turmoil that began with a bloody revolt in 1911. Previously, mariachis had been groups of five to six musicians who provided the soundtrack to fiestas, barroom revelry, and general celebration; they usually consisted of violins, a harp, and a guitarra de golpe--a five-string variant of the guitar. They often added a flute, clarinet, saxophone, cornet, or trombone to carry the melody line, and their repertoire consisted of the sones (usually a lively vocal/instrumental tune that accompanies dancing), corridos (narrative ballads that usually have a factual or historical component), and canciones ranchera (Mexican country music) of the region.

Before the revolution, accomplished groups might go to the big city to play, but they always returned home. With the ascension of "revolutionary capitalists," however, rural Mexico became cool as the popular culture enjoyed a surge in cachet. The government was definitely a motivating force in making mariachi a national music.

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