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Girls Gone Ranchera

There was a time when I squirreled away every available dollar to buy plane tickets to faraway places, but ever since I got my old bike fixed up I’ve been taking voyages of discovery in the neighborhoods surrounding my little hill in Echo Park. On a good day, with the wind at my back, I can be downtown in 10 minutes or on Hollywood Boulevard in 15. The bicycle strips away different layers of Los Angeles, and it allows for the kind of chance encounters usually reserved for foreign travel. Cars, for the most part, have their predetermined trajectory, usually the shortest distance between here and there. But on the bicycle there is a direct exposure to the air, the elements and the people, and since the motor is muscle, the pace is human. The effort I invested in traveling to foreign lands I can now approximate on my bicycle.

The other day, while cruising Echo Park Boulevard, I stopped to listen to a mariachi band warming up near the lake. Channel 52 was there, too, and from the setting it was clear that the band was going to play a brief interlude in the background while the on-camera talent, with her careful hair and studied exuberance, provided commentary for her viewing audience. Later, farther down the road, near the corner of Sunset and Virgil, I heard the gushing refrain of yet another mariachi band. This one, though, was different: The guitars, violins and trumpets that make up this style of music were being played by young women in full getup. This mariachi band was all women!

Mariachi Divas is an all-girl group of eight or nine or 11 musicians — depending on the nature of the gig — who, according to group spokesperson and trumpet player Cindy Shea, claim Mexican, Cuban, Honduran, Samoan and “pure-blooded American” roots. This group was hot, but how does it stack up against a more typical mariachi group, especially in a male-dominated arena that owes its lifeblood to tradition? “Music must evolve or die,” Shea says. “We can do exactly what they are doing, but we can do more.” Mariachi Divas is what Shea calls a “cheating mariachi group”; it draws from different sources, “like the female version of Ozomatli.” Mariachi Divas, she believes, “truly represents L.A. Mariachi music belongs to the world.”

Mariachi music has its origins, like the modern state of Mexico itself, in that weird marriage of indigenous root and colonial ambition. The basic elements might have grown out of Jalisco’s rural traditions, but the instrumentation — the guitars, violins and trumpets — came from Europe. The influence of African slaves, as in other places in the Americas, added rhythm. The dress we’ve come to identify with this music — tight pants with silver studs, the short jackets, wide belts and sombreros — is a mix of a military uniform, swanky horseman’s garb and the clothing of rich landowners.

Mariachi music became part of the urban cultural landscape during the 1920s and ’30s, when essentially rural orchestras, with their vocalists crooning ranchera tunes, were used at political rallies as a way to lure the vote. Garibaldi Plaza in Mexico City became the place to hire a mariachi band for weddings or simply to back up a suitor, like a mobile karaoke. Mariachi music followed Mexican immigration in the 1950s and ’60s into Latinized areas of the U.S. such as Los Angeles. Today this style of music is the quintessential expression of Mexican culture, a source of both passion and pride on both sides of the border.

Could mariachi music ever be my music? There was that little bar in Ensenada where the mariachis played about three feet from the audience and the full force of the trumpets almost knocked me off my barstool. But this experience was different: The plaintive bluesy wail of the ranchera-style vocals seemed to mix with the dust of tradition and the very weight of history and rise up from the streets on the Eastside of Los Angeles. For today, at least, the sweep of the violins and the punctuated passion of the trumpets lightened my heart and carried me away down the boulevard.

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