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Justin Peters

Mariachi demons

As soon as I walked out of the music store with the guitarrón

strapped over my shoulder people honked and whistled out of car windows.

No longer was I just another gringo tourist, but something even more

peculiar: a gringo mariachi.

But I wasn't a true mariachi yet. I started walking towards Mexico

City's Plaza Garibaldi, the mariachi center of the universe. I had some 20-

year-old demons to confront.


“I am, like, so honored to be here,” said the Queen of the 274th Annual

Santa Fe Fiesta of 1986. She was a Santa Fe High School Demonette and

proud of it. Her high-pitched, 16-year-old enthusiasm bounced off the

cinder-block walls of the gym like a ferret in a burlap sack. The mariachi

musicians picked up their guitars, raised their trumpets to their mouths,

and waited. The boys of El Dorado Elementary were about to be scarred for

“Today we're going to show you some of the traditional dances of

fiesta,” the Queen continued. “And if you're lucky, one of us is going to pick

you to dance with us.” She gestured to her fellow members of the Santa Fe

Fiesta royal court, Demonettes in lacy dresses and Demons dressed like


These 16-year-old girls were going to dance with us?

Santa Fe's annual fiesta was supposed to be about effigy burning,

public drinking, and spending the night in the bushes behind the 7-Eleven.

Adult pleasures of which we were still blissfully unaware.

It wasn't supposed to be about making 11-year-old boys dance.

Especially not with girls who had a five-year advantage. They towered

above us, as if to prove they'd put these years to good use.

The Queen nodded to the mariachis. The sound of trumpets and

violins filled the gym and the King and Queen took the first dance. Good.

Maybe they'll be too distracted by their own hormones and completely forget

about us.

But there were still the Demons and Demonettes. They approached

the bleachers. They sought out the shyest, the weakest, the least able to


The Demonettes smiled. Their mascara cracked, the fluorescent

lights cast shadows under their eyes. They reached out without warning

and yanked the boys onto the dance floor.

Some boys stared straight into the cleavage cruelly placed at eye

level. Others gazed off into the distance, their arms hanging limply, and

waited for the dance to end. Only Josh Parnell seemed to enjoy it. But he

had a little black book and already wore aftershave.

I blamed the mariachis.

A healthy teen-age girl would sooner praise her mother's fashion

sense than dance with an 11-year-old boy. But the music changed the rules

and cast a romantic fog over everyone. Boys formerly geeky and awkward

were now “cute.” And slowly some of the boys relaxed, if only for a moment.

We sat in the bleachers and tried to hide behind one another. I moved

back a row as the Demonettes returned for more boys. And then back

another row as they came for the third time.

Then something totally unexpected happened. It was over. The music

stopped and the teen-agers left, off to visit another school. Back in class,

some boys looked a little taller. And I realized the only thing worse than

being picked is not being picked after all.


Mariachis sing about alcohol, women, conquest, loss, and alcohol.

These aren't happy songs. The story is always the same. Boy meets girl, boy

and girl fall in love, boy loses girl, boy drinks tequila, boy wakes up in barn

with burro dressed in black negligee. Love makes us suffer, but it's a
familiar song and everyone knows the words.

Mariachi emerged in the Mexican state of Jalisco in the mid-19th

century, the music of itinerant laborers moving from hacienda to hacienda.

By the 1930s, mariachi went national, popularized in emerging Mexican

radio and cinema.

Plaza Garibaldi became its center. Musicians from all over the

country migrated to the plaza and they're still there – playing in the

surrounding cantinas, waiting for a private party gig or a tourist wanting to

hear a song or two.

This is where I was going with a guitarrón, which I now owned

thanks to the impulsive wielding of a four-digit PIN. I wanted to play it; I

already played electric bass. But this Mexican bass guitar is something

altogether different.

The guitarrón looks like a normal acoustic guitar fed a steady diet of

bacon and chocolate eclairs. It's about the size of a cello, with a stocky neck

and thick, rainbow-colored strings. It is the most difficult mariachi

instrument to carry back with you on the plane.

The guitarrón is plucked like a guitar, strapped over the shoulder

and resting on the stomach. It's big and awkward and easier to play sitting

down. Unfortunately, mariachis are always on their feet.

Mariachis in black dinner jackets stood in a horseshoe around

Flavian's table in a posh restaurant in Mexico City's Zona Rosa. The bassist

played a pure white double bass, accompanied by guitars, trumpets and

violins. The accordionist wore a toupee that may have fooled people in the

restaurant across the street, though I doubt it.

The restaurant had a tall oak-shelved bar stacked to the ceiling with

bottles and a cluster of faux palm trees along the back wall. Zona Rosa

literally means “Pink District,” and the whole neighborhood had the vibe of

a red-light district diluted for tourists.

I met Flavian the way you meet anyone shouting at the table next to

yours. In his mid-60s, Flavian had the puffy physique that comes from

decades of selling toner supplies. His wife, at least 25 years younger, wore a

diamond ring large enough to swallow whole the rings of previous, lesser


The mariachis began playing a slow, romantic ballad. Flavian

clenched his heart and gazed into his wife's eyes.

“¡Que canción!” he shouted. What a song!

He started to sing in a key of his own choosing. If she left him, he

could not go on. She was the only one who ever mattered. Nothing could

ever come between them. Without her, he was incomplete.

She returned his gaze, believing every word.

Most tables looked like Flavian's: gray businessmen entertained

much younger women. They all sang with the boyish grins of old men who
still had it, mixed with the wide-eyed stare of men fearing they may

suddenly lose it.

The music that had recast 11-year old boys as “cute” 20 years ago

transformed these pasty businessmen from old to “worldly,” smoothing

wrinkles and filling in bald spots.

What gave mariachi music this power? And why didn't my adolescent

music ever do this?

For generations, teen-age boys have blasted Metallica out of gray

primered Chevy Novas to attract girls. Rarely were there actual girls in

these cars.

Let's take a popular mariachi song, like “Volver, Volver” (Return,

Return), which goes:

This impassioned love

Goes on, impelling me to return

I'm on the road to madness

And although everything tortures me

I know how to love.

Now compare this to a traditional love song from my 1980s

adolescence, like Van Halen's “Hot for Teacher:”

Got it bad, got it bad, got it bad

I'm hot for teacher

I got it bad, so bad

I'm hot for teacher.

OK, this comparison isn't quite fair. Mariachi is a centuries-old

cultural institution that thrives to this day, while Van Halen is all but


But clearly something is lacking. I could have played Van Halen on a

boom box all night, complete with carefully choreographed air-guitar solos,

and would have gone home alone.

Flavian was not going home alone. The mariachis may have helped

set the mood, but he could take it from here.


“Do you want some help with that?”

I sat on a bandstand in a corner of Plaza Garibaldi, thumbing

through a thin instruction manual. The black and white photos made it look


I nodded. I couldn't even tune it.

Ruben was a trumpet player, but every mariachi is a bit of a virtuoso

– the demands are immense. They need to know 300 songs from memory,

because if a drunk groom demands to hear “Camino de Guanajuato” they'd

better know how to play it.

I handed Ruben my guitarrón and smiled sheepishly.

He tightened the first string until it was almost in tune and then
“twap!” The string had slipped off the tuning peg and hung limply over the

sound hole. He tried it again, and again, “twap!” He moved on to the next

string and again, “twap!”

“Your clavijas (tuning pegs) can't handle the tension. You'll have to

get them replaced before you can play it,” he said. “Come with me and we'll

show you a few things.”

I followed Ruben through a crowd of musicians and realized limp

strings weren't my only problem: my pants weren't nearly tight enough. The

normal apparel for a mariachi is a broad-brimmed hat, short fitted jacket

and pants – all black or all white. Intricate embroidery and silver tassels

decorate the outer trouser seams. Only in Mexico could this look macho.

“¿Eres, mariachi?” another musician asked. Are you a mariachi?

“Not yet.”

“Pero, puedes tocar, ¿no?” he asked. But you can play?

“A little,” I said optimistically.

Other musicians smiled and nodded their approval. I'd owned the

guitarrón for all of half an hour, but was already being welcomed into their

ranks. If I'd tried the same thing with a Guns 'n Roses tribute band, it

would have taken several months just to find acceptable hair extensions.

I caught up with Ruben. He introduced me to his group.

“He wants to learn the guitarrón. He wants to be a mariachi.”

“There's not much technique or finesse to it,” the guitarronista said,

picking up his instrument. “You just grab the strings like this,” he pulled
back two strings simultaneously, “and then you pull. Hard.”

Two strings are played an octave apart so the guitarrón can produce

enough volume to be heard over the trumpets, violins and vocalists.

He played a major scale. Do Re Mi Fa So La Ti Do.

Another musician picked up my guitarrón

Flop, flop, flop, flop, flop, flop, flop, buzz. The strings wobbled over

the sound hole.

“How much did you pay for this?” he asked.

“1,500 pesos.” About 150 dollars.

“Hey, that's how much I paid for mine,” the guitarronista said. They

laughed. I laughed. A mariachi can take a joke.

Ruben handed me the guitarrón. “With some new clavijas it will be

fine,” he said. “No te preocupes.”

The lesson was over. I hoisted the guitarrón over my shoulder. The

limp strings flapped against the soundboard. We exchanged graciases and

de nadas.

I started walking. The occasional car honked, the odd pedestrian

waved. Becoming a mariachi didn't require any painful initiation rituals. No

guitar duels, trashing of hotel rooms, or vodka shots taken from over-sized

brassieres. Sometimes all you need to do is stop hiding in the bleachers.

I continued walking. I would need a repair shop. And tassels.