Sisters are doin' it for themselves, standin' on their own two feet and ringin' on their own bells. Or, in this case, playing their own vihuelas and violins. Since the dawn of modern mariachi music in 19th-century Jalisco, Mexico, mariachi has been the domain of men. Men have played the violins, vihuelas (a small, five-stringed guitar), guitars, guitarrónes (a bass guitar), trumpets and harps that make up the typical mariachi band. Men have sung the serenatas (serenades) and the famous "La Bamba" and "Cielito Lindo." Men have worn the traditional traje de charro uniform and played the music of Mexico while the women stood silent. Only as recently as the 1940s did women begin forming their own mariachi bands, much to the chagrin of their menfolk. Despite the passage of 60 years, all-female mariachi bands still may not find respect in their communities, says Tabitha Sanchez, co-founder of Mariachis Rosas Divinas. "From what we've encountered, those that are in the mariachi world, they're kind of very skeptical about us. They look at us and they think, 'Oh, you're not going to be any good.'" Sanchez says. "Traditionally, it's always been males, so we find that we're having to prove ourselves to gain respect. They're kind of hard on us, watching everything we do."
Rosas Divinas, composed of women ages 16 to 27, claims to be the first all-female mariachi band in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. The group was formed when Sanchez, who had trouble finding acceptance in traditional (all-male) groups, made contact with Joanna Martinez, another female mariachi. The band grew to seven members as Sanchez recruited girls from mariachi groups at local colleges and high schools. Though the outfit is fairly new (their first gig was in March), they've been well-received. Occasionally, they even amaze people with an impromptu performance. "We'll go out to eat even and we'll be in our uniforms and stuff and people are just kind of like, 'Oh, how cute.' They don't think we could be that good. There have been a few instances where I've said, 'Let's go get our instruments and we'll come in and play a song at the restaurant,'" she says. "They're like, 'We can't believe you guys are that good. We didn't expect that from you.' And I was like, 'Why not?' Then they say, 'You guys are young, and you're just a bunch of young girls.' We just kind of surprise people, I guess." Other (scheduled) performances have included a bridal/quinceañera expo, a Cinco de Mayo celebration and dozens of Mother's Day serenades.
Since she grew up speaking only English, mariachi reintroduced Sanchez to her Hispanic roots; exploring the music led her to Mexico, where she finally learned the language as an adult. More than simply a festive folk tradition, mariachi has become, for Sanchez, an integral part of her life. "There's nothing like it. When I wasn't doing it, I missed it so much, but you really learn a lot about yourself, a lot about teamwork and being excellent on your instrument and not being shy getting up and interacting with people. You see when you sing songs how it affects people. Like, you know, the words are so powerful. You sing songs and you bring people to tears," she says. "It's such a great honor for myself to be able to sing and play and watch it affect people in such a cool way."
Sanchez would love to see Rosas Divinas grow, adding more instruments for a stronger, fuller sound (they're currently looking for violin, harp, guitar and guitarrón players) and expanding the audience of mariachi music beyond the Latino community. And maybe some day, mariachi might even be a full-time job. "It's not work to me, you know, it's so much fun. I know some of the other girls aspire to that, to get into big professional groups and make a living that way," Sanchez says. "If the opportunity opened up for me, I mean, of course I would take it in an instant." Right on, sister...or should I say hermana