On the morning of your birthday, your alarm clock rings with the sound of the classic Mexican birthday song ''Las Mananitas'', especially dedicated to you. But it's not coming from your clock; not even from inside your house. It is a traditional serenade, coming from outside your balcony or window, performed by a very special musical group: the mariachi.
The mariachi is a traditional Mexican musical orchestra with trumpets, violins, guitars, ''guitarrones'' (a Mexican adaptation of the contrabass), ''vihuelas'' (a Mexican adaptation of a lute) and can even include a harp. The special music created by this kind of orchestra, usually can be heard in ceremonies such as baptisms and weddings, Mexican patriotic festivities and even funerals. Because of Mexico's satiric veneration of death, many people wish to have some of their favorite songs played by mariachis at their funerals. It is not considered an offense nor perceived as strange in Mexico to ask someone what song he or she would like the mariachis to play at his or her funeral.
Mexicans are lively and festive people and mariachis are rooted deeply into Mexican culture. Just like the people, mariachi music is versatile, hospitable and adaptable to their audiences' preferences. From Mexican country music to European waltzes and even modern ballads, all music can be arranged to sound mariachi style, although true mariachi music is called ''son'', a blend of Spanish and indigenous rhythms. Some of the best examples are from Veracruz, called ''Jarocho son'', the most famous being the song ''La Bamba''. Other examples are the ones from San Luis Potosi called ''Huasteco son'', like ''La Malaguena'' and the ones from Jalisco called ''Jalisciense son'', like the song, ''Son de la Negra''. Another music style that evolved from mariachi music is the ''jarabe''. It is a blend of several dance rhythms such as the son, the Spanish rhythm called ''jota'', and the Polish polka. A classic example is ''The Jarabe Tapatio''.
You can't picture a mariachi without the traditional ''charro'' suit, which consists of a wool jacket with tailored wool pants, opened at the ankle to fit the boots. The suit is adorned with intricate designs made with leather pieces, embroidery or metallic applications on the edges, sleeves and pant legs of the outfit. Finally, the crowning touch is the famous wool hat with a wide brim. Because of this suit, it is common to mistake mariachis for charros but they are not necessarily the same, since one is a musician and the other is a Mexican version of a cowboy. It is believed that the late Manuel Lerdo de Tejada, the chief of the police department of Mexico City, in the time of Mexican President Lazaro Cardenas, was the first to don a charro suit at some of the official functions he gave as head of the police department.
Some historians believe that the word ''mariachi'' came from the French word ''mariage'', meaning ''marriage'' because during the French invasion of Mexico, the French soldiers had mariachi music bands play at their weddings. The truth is that the word existed long before then. Other historians believe that the word comes from the name of the wood from which they used to make the string instruments used by mariachis. The type of wood was probably named for the fact that the instruments were made out of this material and not because the material was named this first. The word comes from a mix of Nahuatl, Spanish and Latin influence and is a word typical of Cocula, Jalisco, meaning something like ''song and joy'' or ''group of troubadours''.
Cocula is considered the official birthplace of mariachis since it was there in the beginning of the 19th century when certain musicians and their bands developed this musical style and became known as mariachis. From there on, mariachis and their music spread across Jalisco and then to the states of Michoacan, Nayarit, Colima, Chihuahua, and even to Veracruz. In 1905, President Porfirio Diaz had a mariachi band come from Cocula to Mexico City to sing and play for him on his birthday. By then, mariachis and their music had spread all over Mexico but it was not until the then presidential candidate, Lazaro Cardenas, when he campaigned across the nation with his musical caravans, that mariachis became well accepted by the high class, who had not cared for mariachis that much.
Singers like Tito Guizar and Lucha Reyes helped turn mariachis into a more academic and commercial style in the mid 30's. Later, in the golden age of the Mexican film, the industry elevated mariachis into icons in Mexico with singers like Jorge Negrete, Pedro Infante, Lola Beltran, Pedro Vargas and Agustin Lara. The mariachi image was already known internationally in the 1944 Walt Disney movie ''The Three Caballeros'', where the Panchito, the Mexican charro rooster brings mariachi music a little closer to audiences of other countries. Nowadays, mariachis perform with big symphony orchestras or with popular singers like Luis Miguel and Alejandro Fernandez, who keep disseminating this musical influence throughout the world.
Mariachi music is considered folk music since it reflects the true Mexican spirit and ideology in its lyrics and is an important part of Mexican culture. This usually implies a grandiose banquet, a fine tequila, an entertaining dance or a lively gathering with family or friends, always a symbol of union and camaraderie among Mexicans. That is why Mexicans today take great pride in mariachi music as much as their ancestors did and probably as their children will continue to do so. Through mariachi music, Mexico extends its borders and shares a bit of its rich culture with the whole world.
By Luis Ernesto de la Garza