By Kate Koenig
Mariachi in the realm of music education is nothing new. For California-based educator, vocalist, and guitarist Claudia García, uniting the two worlds has been a lifelong passion. García’s experience directing mariachi began back in 2001, when she was an undergraduate at Harvard University. After discovering the school had no mariachi ensemble, she decided to create one. The first student mariachi on the East Coast, Mariachi Veritas de Harvard is now 19 years old and still going strong. The group has been entirely student-run since its inception, and today travels all around the country to perform.
Since her time at Harvard, García has gone on to turn her passion into a profession, sharing the music of mariachi throughout Southern California. She has worked with students aged seven to 22, brought her groups to countless mariachi conferences and festivals, created a beginner instructional book for mariachi, and directed a conference with UCLA’s Mariachi Uclatlán, the very first student mariachi group in America, for two years. In 2018, she was featured in an exhibit “Trailblazing Women of Mariachi,” which accompanied the production of “American Mariachi” at the Old Globe Theater in San Diego. Now living in Los Angeles, she directs the Magnolia Elementary Mariachi, teaches at the non-profit organization PS Arts, and serves as the Director of the Mariachi for the Los Angeles Music and Art School. When she’s not working, she performs with her brother in their Latin alternative band, Ruby Clouds, whose song “Un dia de estos” was featured in La Leyenda Negra, a film that premiered at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival.
For the uninitiated, mariachi encompasses folk music from all parts of (and sometimes regions immediately outside of) Mexico. A mariachi group is traditionally composed of violins; trumpets; the enormous, deep-voiced guitarrón; and the vihuela, a five-string soprano guitar. (See the October 2017 issue for more on these instruments.) In García’s words, mariachi is more of an experience than a style of music. “Mariachi is a music of nostalgia,” she says. “It’s also a lot like the blues in that it’s a way to conquer your sadness and hard times in life. It’s not just about learning the notes or playing the music, it’s something that connects you to your whole self.”
I spoke to García about the use of mariachi in music education, the role of the guitar in mariachi, and a bit about her work with Ruby Clouds.
What is your musical background?
I didn’t really have access to music classes or anything until middle school, when I joined band. When I entered high school, I saw that they had a mariachi and I really wanted to join—I ended up joining in my junior year, as a singer. I would say my main instrument is voice. They played around town so much that I became friends with everybody and they taught me a little bit of guitar and guitarrón, and I started learning violin. I performed with them for two years, and when I was applying to college, I saw that there were a couple of colleges that had mariachi but Harvard didn’t. So I decided to send them a video of that mariachi and tell them that I wanted to start one there.
When did you first get into mariachi?
My parents are Mexican and my early childhood was in Tijuana. So Spanish is my first language, and I’ve listened to mariachi music my whole life. But when I actually saw kids my age performing it, and especially young women, I got the mariachi fever right away. I thought,
“Wow, how great that there’s these young girls looking so proud of their heritage and singing these songs that my mother plays on the radio.”
How did you start Mariachi Veritas de Harvard?
I started it my first year because that was the goal I set for myself. The April before classes began, I visited the campus and they had a presentation at the Office of the Arts that talked about how to start a group and what resources were available. So I got even more excited about it, and I actually started recruiting people then. Then in the fall I already knew what to do. They had an extracurricular fair so I brought a boombox and some sheet music, and I started talking to people about playing mariachi. I was able to recruit enough people to start a band that first year. We were approved as an organization, we got a faculty advisor, and even got grants the first year. The university was really supportive. We were able to buy trajes (traditional mariachi suits), which are not cheap, and a guitarrón, which was a couple hundred dollars. It was a really great experience.
What do you think makes mariachi a good medium for music education?
I’ve seen the way it brings people together. It’s a very welcoming music. [It includes] norteños from the North, boleros from the Caribbean, and cumbias from Colombia in addition to rancheras and other regional styles. It’s a beautiful thing for young people to embrace our culture and be very proud of it. That’s one thing I always saw about mariachi is them standing tall. Whenever I teach students about performing, I always tell them to stand like statues, proud like a superhero—especially singers.
I’ve always tried to push educational or academic excellence alongside mariachi. As a teacher I feel like I can really help motivate the students to use mariachi as something that opens up doors for them. For me personally it did that. I have always tried to work with students that come from a similar background as myself—from a low-income, single-parent household. This is something that helps empower the students. You have more than a hundred years of history that you can celebrate and help be a cultural ambassador for.
What role does the guitar have in mariachi?
The guitar acts a lot like percussion in many instances. The bass and the guitar trade off—it’s rhythm most of the time, although sometimes the guitar plays little melodies, little requintos. It depends on the type of guitar. Sometimes people use cuatros [small instruments derived from classical guitars] to play those melodies. But usually in standard mariachi you don’t have a ton of that, so it’s mostly rhythm. It acts as a percussion instrument in certain genres like huapango or sones. There are different kinds of strums that go into different patterns. The most stripped-down version of a mariachi band is the guitar player singing.
What style of music do you play with your band Ruby Clouds?
I guess a broad description is Latin alternative. It doesn’t fit into… I know, [laughs] a lot of bands say “Oh, we don’t fit into a box.” It’s music in English and Spanish. I just describe it as dreamy—I would say loop-based, developing a melody or motif musically with a repeat.
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Do any mariachi techniques come out in your playing?
When we do acoustic versions of our songs, I use mariachi strums to compensate for the lack of a drumbeat. For example, I have a song called “Noche Eterna” that I play as a bolero guapachoso, which is like a “down-up-stop down-up-stop down-up.” Just like simple things like that.
What’s your main guitar?
Earlier this year I got myself a Cordoba GK Studio Negra. My brother and I have been putting together a mariachi album, and I really wanted a more pure sound. So that’s the guitar I’m using for recording and I just love the way it fills the room.
Then I love my Ibanez acoustic-electric because I feel like I can practice anything on it. I love challenging myself to play jazz and pick up nuances of that to incorporate in my music. And I just got a new set of effects in Pro Tools that I’ve been playing around with. I feel like I can do anything with it.
Who are some of your favorite mariachi artists?
I definitely still look up to the composers that sang their own songs, like José Alfredo Jiménez, Juan Gabriel, and Cuco Sánchez. A lot of times folks who are just singers don’t quite represent the song as well as the composer. One of the singers I really admired when I was getting into mariachi was Linda Ronstadt. Her album Canciones de Mi Padre was one I basically used to learn how to sing mariachi—and Mariachi Reyna de Los Angeles’ very first album. The summer after I joined a mariachi, every day in the shower my family knew they were going to hear both albums.
What are some of your goals for your work?
Currently I continue to teach remotely for PS Arts and LAMusArt, and I made a virtual classroom for my elementary group. Part of my post-pandemic plan is to organize a new mariachi conference with my two groups, Magnolia and LAMusArt, and possibly Cal State L.A. or Pomona College because they both have mariachi programs with female directors! When I was hired as Mariachi Director at LAMusArt, Director Manny Prieto said that he was looking for an educator, which is what I proudly consider myself. I want my students to not only become great musicians but also cultural ambassadors.