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Episode 42: La rebeldía mariachi (The Rebels of Mariachi)

By Duolingo on Thu 12 December 2019

Growing up as the daughter of a mariachi, Mireya Ramos learned early on that mariachi was a male-dominated world. But after moving to New York City, Mireya decided to challenge tradition and create an all-female mariachi group, opening doors for other musicians and redefining the genre.

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Transcript

Martina: A decade ago, Mireya Ramos was living in New York City doing the classic aspiring artist hustle. Working a bunch of jobs, playing gigs wherever she could, and dreaming about making it big.

Mireya: Yo trabajé como mesera, trabajé en RadioShack y también dando clases de música para niños. Pero, de noche, me ponía una gran flor blanca en el pelo y un lazo rojo y dorado en el cuello.

Martina: Lazo is a bow. She also put on her black suit with the white embroidery to play violin all over the city with her all-woman mariachi group.

Mireya: Nosotras fuimos la primera banda de mariachi en Nueva York formada solo por mujeres. Al principio, no éramos muy populares. Tocábamos en fiestas de quinceañeras, matrimonios y en restaurantes.

Martina: They drove around town in their old, run down Mercury Grand Marquis and when things were tough, they leaned on each other.

Mireya: Ese carro nos llevó a todas partes, pero tenía varios problemitas: las puertas no cerraban y el aire acondicionado no servía.

Martina: One day as they were driving around they thought, “What if we entered that MTV show, Pimp My Ride?”

Mireya: Hicimos un video explicando los problemas del carro y por qué lo necesitábamos para nuestro trabajo.

Martina: The video is still online, the three of them in front of their Grand Marquis, with flowers in their hair, playing mariachi songs, joking around and begging for a little love for their car.

Mireya: Pero cuando buscamos las instrucciones de cómo mandar el video, ¡nos enteramos de que el show ya no existía!

Martina: It was 2009 and the show Pimp My Ride had been cancelled two years earlier.

Mireya: Nosotras seguimos usando el Grand Marquis durante varios años.

Martina: It was tough going at first, but soon Mireya’s luck would start to change. Her band, Flor de Toloache, would one day make it to the world stage at the Latin Grammys, and forever change the history of her musical genre.

Martina: Bienvenidos and welcome back to a new season of the Duolingo Spanish Podcast —I’m Martina Castro. Every episode, we bring you fascinating true stories, to help you improve your Spanish listening, and gain new perspectives on the world.

The storyteller will be using intermediate Spanish and I’ll be chiming in for context in English. If you miss something, you can always skip back and listen again. We also offer full transcripts at podcast.duolingo.com.

Martina: Mariachi is a traditional music that dates back to the 1800s. It started in Jalisco, in the northern part of Mexico.

Mireya: Yo crecí en Puerto Rico. Mi madre es dominicana y mi padre es mexicano. Él se trajo de México partes de su cultura. Yo crecí escuchando a mi papá cantando mariachi.

Martina: Mariachis are distinctive because of their charro suits —originally cowboy outfits— that are decorated with silver buttons and clasps up and down the legs. They include a huge sombrero and all of the players wear matching colored suits.

Mireya: Me encantaban las canciones como “Cucurrucucú paloma” y también “Me equivoqué contigo”.

Martina: Traditionally, mariachi music is passed down from father to son, generation to generation. Mariachis are almost always present at big life events, like weddings and birthdays. You can also see them wandering the streets of Mexico, playing for tips.

Mireya: La música venía de los bares y de la sociedad de clase baja. Tradicionalmente, las mujeres no eran parte de las bandas de mariachi.

Martina: Her family had a restaurant in San Juan and her dad would play music and sing along, going from table to table.

Mireya: A mi papá le encantaba la canción “Caminos de Michoacán” porque él es de Michoacán. A todos les encantaba escuchar a mi papá cantando esa canción. Él le ponía mucha pasión a la música.

Martina: Her dad was also in a local mariachi group and they would travel all over the island to perform.

Mireya: A veces, mi papá me llevaba con él y yo siempre, siempre me recuerdo mirándolo. Me impresionaba su voz y ver cómo mi papá se conectaba con la gente.

Martina: When Mireya saw the crowds respond to her dad singing she was so moved and emotional, she wanted to be a part of it all.

Mireya: Yo también quería hacer eso. Yo quería vivir ese momento tan lindo, cuando tienes a alguien cantando contigo y la emoción que la música provoca. Yo quería cantar y quería conectarme así con la gente.

Martina: Mireya grew up and held on to that dream of singing and playing music. In 1999, when she was 17 years old, she moved to New York City.

Mireya: Me fui a vivir a Sunset Park en Brooklyn, un barrio muy mexicano. Vivía con mi tía y mi prima.

Martina: Her aunt and her cousin went to church every Sunday and sang in the choir, el coro.

Mireya: Mi tía era la líder del coro en esa linda comunidad. Por esta razón, yo también entré al coro.

Martina: Mireya also played the violin at church services. One day, after mass, an older man came up to her and said he’d seen her perform. He asked her if she wanted to join his mariachi group.

Mireya: Yo nunca había tocado mariachi, pero venía de esa tradición y la conocía muy bien.

Martina: She told the man yes. She was so excited to learn all the traditional songs on her violin, she also figured it would be a fun adventure.

Mireya: Además, era una oportunidad para hacer dinero con la música, pero también era mucho trabajo.

Martina: Mariachis have hundreds and hundreds of songs in their repertoire. And they have to know them all by heart, because they play whatever the crowd asks for. Since many aren’t written down, it took weeks and weeks of practice for Mireya to learn them.

Mireya: Entonces, me aprendí toda la música de oído. La verdad, yo entré al grupo sin saber nada.

Martina: Mireya eventually got all the songs down and she played with that group for years. She got better and better and started inviting other musicians to play with them too.

Mireya: Cada año, yo veía más y más restaurantes mexicanos y más celebraciones mexicanas tradicionales, como fiestas de quinceañeras y matrimonios. Es muy lindo porque la gente trae sus tradiciones a Nueva York.

Martina: Mireya loved the music, but she was the only woman in the band. At times she felt like she was the only woman mariachi in all of New York —and the band wouldn’t let her forget it.

Mireya: Tradicionalmente, las bandas de mariachi son de hombres. Si escuchas las letras de las canciones, te das cuenta de que todas son escritas desde la perspectiva del hombre.

Martina: Sometimes it felt like they didn’t really want her around. She worked hard to learn all of the songs, but it just didn’t seem to be enough.

Mireya: Yo quería trabajar con más mujeres, quería crear una comunidad y disfrutar mientras trabajaba y cantaba.

Martina: So Mireya started to think, there’s gotta be something I can do about this.

Mireya: En un momento yo pensé: “No tengo que pasar por esto. Si yo formo un grupo solo de mujeres, esto nos puede ayudar a reunirnos, a hacer algo bonito y a sentirnos cómodas entre nosotras”.

Martina: And that’s exactly what she did. She started looking for other women who wanted to be a mariachi, just like her.

Mireya: Por esta razón, fundé un grupo de mariachi formado solo por mujeres.

Martina: The first woman Mireya asked to join her all-woman mariachi group was Shae Fiol.

Mireya: Yo conocí a Shae a través de su música. Ella hacía neo soul y R&B. Pensé en ella porque tocaba la guitarra y cantaba al mismo tiempo.

Martina: Shae is Cuban American, and she had never played mariachi before, but she was down to learn.

Mireya: Ella aprendió rápidamente a tocar el instrumento que toca ahora, la vihuela.

Martina: The vihuela is a type of guitar that’s high pitched and has five or six double strings.

Mireya: Es un instrumento típico en las bandas de mariachi. Nosotras tenemos un sonido muy único porque Shae aplicó todo lo que sabía de guitarra en la vihuela. Ella hace muchas cosas que tradicionalmente no se hacen.

Martina: In addition to the vihuela, mariachis traditionally have a violin, trumpets, harp, and a guitarrón, which is a very large, bass guitar with a rounded back.

Mireya: Por un tiempo, fuimos solamente dos, ella con la vihuela y yo con el violín, porque no podíamos encontrar a otra música.

Martina: In mariachi everyone sings. Sometimes one person will be the designated singer for a specific song if their voice fits better or if they have an affinity for it, but normally everyone sings and harmonizes in mariachi.

Mireya: Al principio, fue difícil persuadir a las mujeres de aprender a tocar y cantar mariachi con nosotras. No era algo muy popular en ese tiempo.

Martina: The second woman that Mireya found was Verónica Valerio.

Mireya: Verónica es una violinista mexicana de Veracruz. Ella cantaba y ya conocía el repertorio de mariachi.

Martina: The trio practiced together and started looking for restaurants that would let them sing.

Mireya: Las chicas estaban acostumbradas a leer la música, no a aprenderse las cosas de oído. Fue difícil enseñarles las canciones. Yo escribía las partituras a mano y así, ellas las podían leer.

Martina: Partituras means sheet music. Mireya spent hours and hours writing the music by hand, they could have bought the sheet music online but they wanted to make their own arrangements for the group.

Mireya: En ese momento me di cuenta de que nosotras crecemos escuchando las canciones sin pensar en las letras.

Martina: As Mireya was writing out the charts by hand, she realized the lyrics to the mariachi songs she’d been singing since she was a girl… are pretty misogynist.

Mireya: Cuando formé un grupo de mujeres me di cuenta de que cantar esas canciones no tenía sentido. Muchas de las canciones son muy machistas.

Martina: So they decided to write their own songs in the mariachi tradition, but from the perspective of a woman.

Mireya: Nosotras hicimos nuestra propia versión de la canción “Se me olvidó otra vez” de Juan Gabriel. Cantar esa canción desde la perspectiva de la mujer cambió todo. Yo me sentí poderosa cuando la canté con un grupo de mujeres fuertes. Creo que el resultado fue muy bonito.

Martina: It was still tough going though, for years they struggled to make money.

Mireya: Al principio, el grupo no nos daba nada de dinero. Nosotras teníamos que tocar con otras personas, pero, poco a poco, el potencial del concepto fue creciendo.

Martina: They were the only all-woman mariachi in New York City. They called themselves Flor de Toloache after a flower in Mexico that has long been used for love potions.

Mireya: Nosotras mismas hicimos nuestros trajes de mariachi. Los decoramos para tener un look único.

Martina: They added fun twists to the traditional mariachi outfits, or trajes —they embroidered flowers into them, adding splashes of color and tassels. They made them more feminine and unique. But when they drove around looking for gigs, the restaurants weren’t as excited as they were.

Mireya: Muchas veces nos dijeron que no, casi nadie nos dejaba tocar.

Martina: When they did score a gig, they still faced machismo at every step.

Mireya: A veces, cuando llegábamos a tocar, los hombres asumían que no sabíamos conectar nuestros instrumentos o que no sabíamos cómo preparar todo para tocar.

Martina: It was demoralizing. What’s worse, sometimes at the end of the performance the manager would refuse to pay them, or would only pay a fraction of the going rate.

Mireya: Una vez, en un restaurante, me dieron un cheque sin fondos. ¡Eran mil dólares!

Martina: Despite everything, the group had a lot of fun playing together. And slowly things started to change. In 2012, after a performance in a bar, a writer from the Daily News interviewed them. It was the first time they were recognized for all of their work.

Mireya: ¡Fue muy emocionante! Ese artículo también nos abrió la puerta para estar en otros medios de comunicación.

Martina: Around that same time, they scored a residency at Rockwood Music Hall, an alternative music venue. It meant a steady income for them. They had a standing monthly show and they were able to experiment and play new songs.

Mireya: Además de mariachi, nosotras tocábamos canciones de pop, rock, salsa, bachata y reggae. Gracias a esto, nació la pasión por la fusión de estos tipos de música.

Martina: Over the years, women from all over the world joined them and learned the mariachi songs. The band was always changing with new members coming and going. The result was always unique, because of all the different influences.

Mireya: Hubo una mujer de Australia, otra de Colombia, una de Singapur y otras de varios estados de México.

Martina: In 2015, they wrote and recorded their first album. They named it after themselves —Flor de Toloache.

Mireya: En ese tiempo, nos invitaron a hacer nuestra primera gira. ¡Fue una gran experiencia! Nosotras aprendimos mucho, experimentamos con nuevas ideas, creamos nuevas canciones y nuevos sonidos.

Martina: They went on tour across Europe and the U.S. as the opening act for the Black Keys’ singer Dan Auerbach’s new band, The Arcs.

Mireya: Nosotras aprendimos muchísimo de él. Dan Auerbach es un genio de la música.

Martina: And that same year, Mireya and the band were nominated for a Latin Grammy for best ranchero album.

Mireya: Fue realmente alucinante ser reconocidas por nuestra música. No ganamos, pero fue la motivación que necesitábamos.

Martina: Two years later, in 2017, they were nominated again for Best Ranchero/Mariachi album —for their new album, Las Caras Lindas. This time, they won, becoming the first women to ever win the award.

Mireya: Ha sido un camino largo y difícil, pero con éxito y momentos felices.

Martina: But even now, as an award-winning band that has travelled the world, playing major venues, they still face machismo. People complain that they wear pants instead of traditional skirts and say they shouldn’t be included in the Mariachi section of the Latin Grammys.

Mireya: En la comunidad mariachi a veces hablan mal de nosotras y dicen que no somos un grupo de mariachi de verdad.

Martina: But they’re not letting that slow them down. They recently released their third album, which includes unique collaborations and new fusions of mariachi with other types of music. It includes a song with R&B singer Miguel, who just happens to be Mireya’s cousin.

Mireya: Mi abuela era hermana de la abuela de Miguel. Ellas dos cantaban juntas en la radio en México, pero Miguel y yo no nos conocíamos.

Martina: Miguel and Mireya met through their industry connections about a year ago and rekindled their family ties. Together they cover the song “Te lo dije” by Miguel and made it into an R&B-bachata-mariachi fusion.

Mireya: Nuestras abuelas no pudieron estar allí cuando grabamos la canción. Desafortunadamente, ellas habían muerto recientemente. Continuar la tradición de mariachi que ellas empezaron y conectarme de nuevo con mi familia ¡fue una experiencia increíble!

Martina: There are other songs on the album that directly answer their critics. Like the one titled “Indestructible”.

Mireya: Escribimos la canción “Indestructible”, pues nos da fuerzas. “Indestructible” celebra el hecho de ser mujeres.

Martina: In the song, they describe a woman as strong and beautiful, but from the perspective of a woman telling her friend that she can do the impossible because she is indestructible.

Mireya: Así va la canción: “Eres flor que germina mujer valiente y divina. Dominas el destino, eso es fortaleza femenina. Logras lo imposible porque eres indestructible”.

Martina: Mireya Ramos is the founder of Flor de Toloache. This story was produced by Sarah Barrett, a Canadian journalist based in Mexico City.

We’d love to know what you thought of this episode. Send us an email with your feedback at podcast@duolingo.com. And if you liked this story, please share it! You can find the audio and a transcript of each episode at podcast.duolingo.com. You can also subscribe at Apple Podcasts or your favorite listening app, so you never miss an episode.

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The Duolingo Spanish Podcast is produced by Duolingo and Adonde Media. I’m the executive producer, Martina Castro. Gracias por escuchar.

Credits

This episode was produced by Duolingo and Adonde Media.

Story Producer: Sarah Barrett
Narrator & Protagonist: Mireya Ramos
Script Editor: Catalina May
Mixed by: Martine Chaussard
Sound Design & Mastering Engineer: Jeanne Montalvo
Executive Producer: Martina Castro