Ask a Mexican

Where was Mariachi Born and Why Does This Highlander Love It So?

Dear Mexican: My gabacho friends look at me askance for being a gabacho who enjoys mariachi music. They, and even some of my Mexican friends, run and hide when I go a step further and start listening to the mournful ballads of Vicente Fernandez, backed up by—you guessed it—a mariachi band. Not that the music of my Highlands ancestors is any more special: Those folks got their jollies blowing into a bag that made the sound of multiple cats in heat. I've noticed that the number and type of instruments used in mariachi bands and the costuming of the players are quite exact every time, showing little variation. This leads me to ask: What are the origins of mariachi music, and why does it enjoy such popularity?

—Bonnie Prince Gabacho

Dear Thrifty Gabacho: Simple, really—the roots are from the Mexican state of Jalisco, which I've noted before in this column plays the role of Texas in the Mexican cultural imagination. It's an overstatement to say mariachi shows little variation, though. The instruments usually stick to various arrangements of trumpets, violins, a guitar, a guitarrón (that fat guitar that players pluck at with the ferocity of an upright bass and that American culture has relegated to a fat man), and a vihuela and can come in arrangements as small as four men or as large as an orchestra. The costumes, while always drawing from Jalisco's charro tradition, also wildly vary, while the music they interpret span Mexico's regions and beyond—they can play cumbias, rancheras, polkas, mambos, even "The Devil Went Down to Georgia." Historians date the beginnings of mariachi to the era of Emperor Maximilian, but its international popularity only to the 1940s, when Mexico's leaders decided to (answer continued on page 73 of my ¡Ask a Mexican! book, paperback edición).

In Switzerland they have (or maybe had—I haven't checked recently) a law stating that foreign workers could legally come, have families, pay taxes, but could never acquire citizenship. That strikes me as cruel and unpleasant, but at least honest. But is that better or worse than the U.S. position of allowing workers in illegally to support the economy (and do the jobs that the great unwashed would touch never in a million years), holding out the hope of citizenship, until it becomes politically expedient to round a few up and expel them?

—On the Fence

Dear Gabacho: You're right on the Swiss law, along with the laws of many other European nations that denied birthright citizenship to the children of their immigrants for decades. Such jus sanguinis laws might be ruthlessly honest, but they also created a permanent underclass maduro for the picking by terrorists, and dual societies that make our current American-Mexican problems seem downright melting-pot by comparison. And that's what Know Nothing politicians who helped defeat the DREAM Act and now want to amend the U.S. Constitution to ensure children born in this country to illegal immigrants do not automatically become American citizens don't understand. Guest worker programs don't work—you aren't contracting robots but rather humans who put down roots. And the children, whether born here or smuggled in at a young age, will forever consider themselves American because that's the only country they know. Yet you have so-called Americans dismiss the kiddies as anchor babies, and the immigrants as invaders! This country's assimilationist fires are too strong to create a true dual society like that which exists in Europe, but with the current Know Nothing rhetoric and politics dominating Washington, don't be surprised next time there's an immigrant-rights march and everyone waves Mexican flags.

GOOD MEXICAN OF THE WEEK: Is actually a Filipino, but we all know that those chinitos are the Mexicans of Asia. Ask a Filipino answers questions about his raza, from why the armpits of those little island people are so dark to why Filipinas are beautiful but Filipinos ugly, in an informative, hilarious, scandalous manner. Read more Pinoy pendejadas at

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Gustavo Arellano
Contact: Gustavo Arellano

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