Nov. 22, 2022

Born in Bayou City

It’s no accident that Houston gave rise to the mariachi opera.

HGO’s storied history with mariachi operas can only be attributed to the Houston community’s long history with and love for mariachi music.

Composer Javier Martínez and librettist Leonard Foglia’s El Milagro del Recuerdo premiered at HGO in 2019 and marks the world’s third-ever mariachi opera. The first—introduced in 2010 with HGO’s 41st world premiere, Cruzar la Cara de la Luna—was composed by Javier’s father, Don José “Pepe” Martínez, the former band leader of the world’s oldest and most famous mariachi band, Mariachi Vargas. Pepe Martínez teamed up with Foglia to write both the first mariachi opera and the second, El Pasado Nunca se Termina, which made its world premiere at Lyric Opera of Chicago in 2015, shortly before HGO presented it at the Wortham. After Pepe’s passing, his son took up the mantle, composing the opera you’ll see today.

Mariachi music has existed in Mexico for centuries. Before the Spanish colonized present-day Mexico in the 16th century, the indigenous population played their cultural music on a variety of instruments that included drums and pan flutes. This highly rhythmic musical style combined with Western European instruments when the Spanish arrived and introduced guitars and violins. This fusion represented, more or less, the birth of mariachi music. While the name “mariachi” has many disputed etymological origins, one of the leading explanations is that it derives from an indigenous name for the type of wood used for the performers’ dance platforms.

The genre was also called son jaliscience, as it arose most prominently in the Jalisco region of Mexico. Field workers in the region were paid more if they also played music, but at the turn of the 20th century, when the Mexican Revolution led to higher industrialization and urbanization, many workers lost their jobs and moved to larger cities to play mariachi music for a living. This was when trumpets, one of the signature instruments of the modern style of mariachi, were introduced—nearly 300 years after the rise of the early son jaliscience style—thanks to the popularity of jazz and Latin American music in Mexico. The rise of the modern Mexican mariachi band—trumpets, violins, harps, guitar, guitarrón, and vihuela—followed.

Shortly after the Revolution, the Mexican government, seeking ways to unite Mexican people and culture, used mariachi as the driving force of this unification. It was played on the radio, on TV, and in plazas throughout Mexico, and soon became one of the country’s main genres of popular music. It wasn’t long before it spread to the United States, particularly to areas with large populations of Mexican American immigrants. One of the earliest professional mariachi bands in the U.S. was Grammy Award-winning Mariachi Los Camperos, founded in 1961 in Los Angeles. Los Camperos performed with HGO in 2018 for Cruzar la Cara de la Luna, and they still play today, traveling across the country and influencing countless student and professional bands.

Mariachi music has long been a staple of Texan and Houstonian heritage, heard not only at cultural events, parties, restaurants, and church services, but in recent decades, also in our schools. In 1998, Houston’s High School for the Performing and Visual Arts began a program for mariachi students. Under the direction of Antonio Roca, the school teaches two mariachi groups, the Mariachi Nuevo Jalisco and the Mariachi Los Pasajeros, which play concerts throughout the year. There are now dozens of middle and high school mariachi ensembles throughout Houston, as school districts, noting its significance both to music education and our city’s culture, have introduced programming. HSPVA’s Los Pasajeros is one of the best groups in the state, having earned the highest rating possible at the Texas UIL State Mariachi Festival.

Another notable development in Houston’s long history with mariachi music came about in 2019, when Jose Longoria—a trailblazer in the development of mariachi education within HISD—became the first professor of mariachi at the University of Houston. Mariachi Pumas, the UH mariachi ensemble, performs all over the city and, Longoria says, will serve as a training ground for middle and high school mariachi teachers. Be sure to check out the Mariachi Pumas website and attend their next public performance—they are incredible musicians.

Finally, who can forget the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo competition? On Go Tejano Day, the Rodeo hosts its annual Mariachi Invitational, inviting five professional mariachi ensembles from across Texas to compete. With their identities obscured, the ensembles perform during three different rounds; two finalists are then selected to perform in the final round at NRG Stadium for a crowd of over 70,000 people—with applause determining the winner. This year’s Mariachi Invitational will be held on March 11, 2023.

The mariachi tradition is strong in Houston, and the next generation of musicians is on the way. Some may win the Rodeo’s Mariachi Invitational; others, like tonight’s Trio Chapultepec, may perform all over the country in Cruzar la Cara de la Luna or El Milagro del Recuerdo. Who knows? Perhaps the creators of the next mariachi opera are out somewhere in Houston, honing their craft right now. 

about the author
Jeremy Johnson
Jeremy Johnson is the Dramaturg & Associate Director of New Works for Houston Grand Opera.