Mariachi and Social Protest

The Chicano Movement, or El Movimiento, sought to “unite Mexican Americans around a
broad range of issues from the restoration of land grants, to farm workers’ rights, better education, voting, and political rights.”
Leaders of the movement, such as César Chávez, used the arts and cultural expression to reach out to the community and encourage participation and solidarity. Whereas the commercial success of mariachi music made mariachi popular in the United States, this movement “intensified the meaning of mariachi music as a cultural symbol and as a means of cultural pride and resistance in the United States.” During this period, many protest songs were written to reflect the struggles of Chicano’s, and some mariachi songs were given new meanings. For example, the words of the popular song “De Colores,” or “Of Colors,” did not originally have activist meanings

chicano 2

In colors, the fields drape themselves in a
profusion of colors in springtime.

In colors, in colors the young birds arriving
from afar

In colors, in colors the brilliant rainbow we 
spy

And that’s why the great love
of infinite colors is pleasing to me

And that’s why the great love
of infinite colors is pleasing to me

The Chicano movement however, reinterpreted the meaning behind “De Colores,” and this song came to talk about taking pride in being people of color. Additionally, many songs were written in the mariachi style as part of this protest—“El Picket Sign” talks about fighting for Chicano worker’s rights. The conscious incorporation of mariachi  in the Chicano Movement relates to the “feelings of closeness to [the] Mexican community” that Ethnomusicologist Daniel Sheehy describes is fostered by a type of music that “taps the wellspring of memory about the pain and joy.” Indeed, mariachi song topics usually focus on love, pain, and loss—philospher Ernest Renan argues that “suffering in common unifies” and creates the need for a common effort. In this way, mariachi was used in the Chicano Movement to create solidarity by reminding Mexican Americans of their common heritage and experiences.

The connection between mariachi and Mexican American pride is increasingly recognized by institutions. Today, there are hundreds of mariachi school programs throughout the country. A major force behind the academic mariachi movement is a drive to keep high-risk kids in school. For example, fifty-five percent of the high-risk, low-income students involved in Wilson High School’s mariachi program graduated and went on to college. Similar patterns have emerged in hundreds of similar programs, with most mariachi schools concentrated in the Southwest to attract the large number of students of Mexican descent.  Maria Elena Gonzalez, founder of the School of Mariachi Music Los Caporales, highlights another consequence of bringing mariachi into schools: “All come with the same ambition: to learn how to express themselves through mariachi music and an effort to preserve their culture . . . It brings us together and makes us one.” Many students find that mariachi is a way to experience either a new culture, or connect with the cultural heritage. Still, some criticize the institutionalization of a mariachi, because “Traditionally, mariachi musicians learned their craft from their elders.” Also, teaching mariachi in schools involves transcribing traditional songs onto sheet music, which is also controversial because traditionally, very few mariachi players read music, but rather learned to play aurally. Appiah addresses this fear of contaminating “authentic culture”: Living cultures do not, in any case, evolve from purity into contamination; change is more a gradual transformation from one mixture to a new mixture.” Just as “De Colores” has come to have a political meaning in some contexts, mariachi as a whole has evolved in the United States to represent the living, changing Mexican American identity. 

protest 3

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