How Musical is Woman?: Performing Gender in Mariachi Music

In this dissertation, I engage in the ongoing discussion between popular music and gender scholarship through an ethnographic and archival investigation of women’s performances in mariachi music, a musical expression originating in eighteenth-century Western Mexico. Historical evidence and ethnographic accounts referenced in this study reveal that women have indeed performed with mariachi ensembles since at least the turn of the twentieth century. While they were not encouraged to perform as mariachi musicians, those who did were occluded from historical representations or dismissed as trivial or novel. By presenting a critical analysis of women’s socio-musical contributions, this dissertation situates the impact of gendered stereotypes in historical, social, and individual contexts. Presenting this analysis, however, calls for first understanding the mariachi tradition historically.

As with other popular musics that confronted the coming of the mass media, mariachi music evolved also alongside the globalizing culture industry. Since the early twentieth century, select groups from Western Mexico traveled to Mexico City to secure their space in a promising performance scene. The music became such an important expression that it was featured in all emerging media technologies: the first commercial phonograph recordings in 1908, live national radio programs since 1925, the first sound film in 1931, touring caravans since the 1950s, and pioneer broadcast television programs since the late 1960s (Chapter Two). In this sense, mariachi music’s dynamic presence in the media has produced three adverse effects. First, the music presented by the culture industry prompted the idea that mariachi ensembles evolved into internationally broadcasted stereotypical image, such that rural expressions appeared as a mere tradition of the past. Despite the demanding effects of globalization, there continues to be a mariachi tradition that in Mexico has succeeded in sustaining traditional characteristics. These musicians have safeguarded their tradition through aural transmission and today continue to engage in preservation efforts similar to the folk music revival expressions emerging around the world.

Second, with the rise of mariachi music’s global popularity, the tradition became vulnerable to increasing disdain and rejection by scholars and public alike. Critics rebuked this evolved musical expression by characterizing it solely as commercial music created by music industry leaders, rather than by the common people from rural communities. They posited that the media homogenizes and distorts regional musical peculiarities, ultimately suggesting a loss in authenticity (Chapter Two). While the media does impact traditional music, the challenge today lies in dignifying and vindicating its artistic value. Third, it is through mass media consciousness that mariachi ensembles became associated with male practitioners, perpetuating the idea that men are the primary tradition bearers. As female singers introduced a woman-figure in Mexican popular music since the 1930s, when Lucha Reyes (1906-1944) first defined the space for women as bold, unapologetic, and aggressive (Chapter Three), others entered the mariachi music scene, not as singers, but as musicians (Chapter Four). Despite the ideological prominence of this male-centered tradition, women have creatively established their place within this powerful medium of cultural expression so strongly associated with men.

Due to the lack of documentary evidence concerning mariachi music’s disputed origins (Chapter One), the ambitious task of understanding women’s place in this changing musical phenomenon presents a major challenge. My nine years of formal ethnographic research, as well as my own experience as a mariachi musician for over twenty years, has taught me not to generalize individual experiences, nor deem early-published documents as absolute authoritative truth. The findings I present in this dissertation are not the exception. They do aim, however, to contribute to a panoramic view of the mariachi tradition—with women included.