Siblings Martha, Claudia and Gabriel Gonzalez form one of the most important musical families in Los Angeles, preserving the roots and spirit of Mexican culture. As children of immigrants and lifelong champions of East L.A., they’ve come together to tell the story of their family for one night only through a repertoire of traditional Mexican ranchera music at the Aratani Theatre on Saturday, May 28.
Back in the 1970s, a circuit of traveling Mexican variety shows — known as variedades — made stops up and down California. They were the big attractions for Los Angeles’ Mexican immigrant communities and often, at the time, the only professional live entertainment that catered to their tastes.
These shows ranged from thousands of people packing the Pico Rivera Sports Arena to several hundred at the Million Dollar Theatre in downtown L.A. At each show, one mariachi band would serve as the backing band for all singers that performed. Comedians and, occasionally, child acts also would be featured. The talent was top-notch; legends of ranchera music such as Juan Gabriel got their start at these shows.
In those days, corporate America had no interest in targeting the Mexican community. Despite the popularity of the variedades, all sponsors were mom-and-pop shops and restaurants. “I remember Pollo Loco was just trying to get started,” Martha recalls.
Growing up, the Gonzalez siblings performed for other family members in their living room. When their uncle, who was a promoter for the variedades, found out that the children could sing, he started booking them regularly at shows. Later, Gabriel broke into acting; in the 1981 film Mojado de Nacimiento he portrayed a child who is left behind in Mexico as his father goes to seek work in the United States, never to return. He also had a role in the iconic film La Vida Loca, which takes place in Echo Park.
All three siblings went on to make their own marks in the L.A. music scene. Martha is the singer of Chicano folk-rock band Quetzal, a group also known for their activism. Claudia’s group, Cava, is more R&B– and world music–based. Gabriel collaborates with Queztal as well but is better known as a singer in the salsa scene.
Los Angeles seems like a different place now. Corporate America finally caught on, and major media companies like Univision and beer companies such as Bud Light dominate the Mexican music market. “You can’t even have street vendors anymore. It doesn’t look local anymore,” Martha says.
Recently, Martha was making her way downtown to a meeting at the Last Bookstore. She looked across the street and caught a glimpse of the Alexandria Hotel on Spring Street. It’s where her parents met in the late ’60s, when the hotel’s ballrooms hosted dance parties for the city’s Mexican immigrants. Now it's high-priced apartments in gentrified DTLA.
“I personally can’t walk down the street without feeling a sense of loss," she says. "Even with new developments and improvements, you still sense the ghosts of people who are gone.”
East L.A. has changed as well. Although great bands continue to emerge from Boyle Heights and other neighborhoods, this new generation of artists, Martha feels, are not as outspoken when fighting for social issues in their communities.
“I don’t see it happening enough,” she says. "Some feel it’s none of their business and just want to make music, but artists are accountable for the communities they come from.”
Perhaps that will change. In order for a community to know where it’s going, it needs to know where it's been. That, for the Gonzalez Family, is what their May 28 performance at the Aratani Theatre in downtown represents. Titled "Caminos y Canciones [Roads and Songs] of the Gonzalez Family," it's a celebration of music, a lens into the heart and soul of a family viewed through struggle, immigration and the pride of a community.
“It’s very nostalgic with the music, and it brings back painful memories. But it’s also healing to remember,” Martha says.
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If there’s one thing Martha Gonzalez wants you to take away from the show, it’s that we need to be more integrated into our own communities than ever before. “What’s going to matter is what you do in your local community. More than pulling a ballot. They will have no choice but to acknowledge the power of community.”
The Gonzalez Family plays the Aratani Theatre in Little Tokyo on Saturday, May 28, as part of the Aratani World Series. More info.