Skip to Main Content
El Paso Community College
Library Research Guides

Borderlands: The Magic of Mariachis (with 2017 update)

A unique resource of faculty edited college student articles on the history and culture of the El Paso, Juárez, and Southern New Mexico regions.

The Magic of Mariachis

By Jesus Alvarado (Articles first published in Vol. 10, 1992)

Mariachis Update 2017

The border interpretation of the soft drink slogan, “You got the right one!” won $15,000 for a local man this past year. He recorded an unusual musical group for a national competition — mariachis! Their spirited rendition won national recognition for our traditional border music.

Just as the singing cowboy of the silver screen epitomized the romantic West, mariachi musicians represent the culture and tradition of the borderland. With its roots in Mexico, the modern musical group grows and changes with generations of Mexican-Americans.

The Coca Indians who lived in the hills of the central part of Jalisco known as Cocula are credited with the origin of the mariachi. In the early 16th century, they celebrated many festive occasions with music made with drumlike boxes, bone flutes and rhythm instruments made from skulls and pottery. Around 1531, the Cocas combined their native music with the Spanish harp and violin. Then in 1576, the guitarilla, the small guitar with only four strings, was added for a unique sound.

""Image caption: Angela Morgan-Thornton (center) directs EPCC’s Mariachi Real de El Paso. (Photo courtesy of Angela Morgan-Thornton)

The word “mariachi” first meant “tree” to the Cocas and then later came to mean “wooden floor,” where people danced to the music of this tribe. Among dances originated by this tribe is the Jarabe Tapatío, a Coca dance now considered the national dance of Mexico. Thus, the word “mariachi” has long been associated with dancing.

 Mariachi music was to become a Mexican tradition. The guitarrón, a six-string bass guitar tuned in octaves, and the vihuela, a five-string guitar, were invented in the early part of the 17th century. These instruments provided a sound unique to the mariachis and are two instruments still made only in Mexico.

These instruments and others were made by skilled craftsmen from Cocula. To this day, Coculenses teach their children the ways of fine instrument making. At one time the vihuela and guitarrón required strings made of tripas de gato, or catgut. The tripas gave the instrument a very unusual sound but only lasted for two or three days.

 Through the centuries, more and more natives learned to play as their fathers taught them, by ear. Musicians played and sang songs describing love, sorrow, famous deeds and heroes, horses and homes. Theirs was the “country music” of Mexico.

In the 1880s, small groups of mariachis known as violines del cerro or “violins of the hills” began searching out occasions to play their music. They dressed in their best clothing consisting of a white shirt and pants with a red sash around the waist worn with simple sandals, large straw hats with ball fringe and a red serape or black cotton blanket folded in half and draped over one shoulder. The dashing mariachi outfits we know today were to come much later.

In the 1900s, mariachis established their territory by traveling to nearby ranches. In September 1905, Juan Villaseñor, a ranch supervisor from the area of Cocula, took a group to Mexico City to play for President General Porfirio Díaz in celebration of fiestas patrias, the 16th of September. This was the beginning of an Independence Day tradition that would grow stronger by the decade.

The 1940s introduced the mariachi group to the world. The first organized mariachi group to record was the Mariachi Vargas from Jalisco, Mexico. They played as instrumental backup for such Mexican musical stars as Pedro Infante, Lola Beltran and Javier Solis.The original mariachis played seated. Not until the first trumpet joined the group in the 1940s did they start standing. “El Trompetas,” a musician simply known as “The Trumpeter,” was a master of the instrument and changed the mariachi sound forever.

The 1940s also saw the evolution of what we think of as the traditional mariachi uniform. It is the flamboyant charro outfit consisting of close-fitting pants with rows of engraved silver or gold buttons or an embroidered leather design on the outside seams, a matching short jacket, snowy white shirt with ruffled tie, all topped off with a wide sombrero and short boots with a mirror shine.

The modern mariachi group consists of 12 members: guitarra de golpe, a five-stringed instrument tuned differently than a western guitar; vihuela, also five strings; guitarrón, six strings tuned in octaves; the bass, played two strings at a time; five or six violins; two trumpets and sometimes even a harp.

Mariachis play for wedding receptions, birthdays, conventions, political functions, funerals and traditionally serenade mothers on Mother’s Day, a custom known as gallo. Their musical style has moved beyond national boundaries to many parts of the United States, Colombia, Venezuela, Chile, France and even Japan.

Thanks to modern music stars such as Linda Ronstadt and others, the popularity of this folk music is increasing throughout the United States. Local high schools continue this musical tradition for a new generation of mariachis. Area musicians have chosen the vitality of the Mexican musical tradition to express their culture and heritage. They have chosen the “right one” for them. 

¡Como no! (Uh huh!)

See related article from this issue below. 

back to top

EPCC Web site || EPCC Libraries Web Site || EPCC Library Catalog
Report a problem