At Santa Fe’s Mariachi Extravaganza on Saturday, Aug. 31, part of the kickoff weekend for Fiesta de Santa Fe (which runs through Sept. 8), a sellout crowd will celebrate mariachi music at the Santa Fe Opera. “People associate mariachi music with special occasions,” said Herman Lovato, Santa Fe Fiesta Council member and chairman of the Concierti de Mariachi Committee, who has been involved with the Extravaganza since it began in 2000. He was instrumental in bringing the event, which first took place in the gym at Santa Fe High School, to the grander environs of the Santa Fe Opera. Then-general director Richard Gaddes “believed that opening the house to mariachi music would introduce new people to the opera,” he said.
The job of mariachi music in Mexican and Mexican-American culture is to represent the heart. A mariachi band consists of singers and musicians playing violins, various-sized guitars (including the round-backed vihuela and deep-voiced guitarrón), and at least one blaring trumpet. The style of music began in Jalisco, near Guadalajara, in the 18th century, and developed over the next 300 years. Traditionally, groups of musicians would be hired to serenade adored women by playing “Las Mañanitas” under their windows. Mariachis have become part of celebrations such as quinceañeras, the coming-of-age parties for 15-year-old girls. They wander from restaurant to restaurant in Mexico’s tourist areas, playing for tips. Dressed in tight Mexican charro cowboy outfits with huge, brimmed hats and brass buttons, band members also entertain at weddings and lead the crying at funerals.
The change in venue caught on with the Fiesta crowds as well as the musicians. “Any group that comes here to perform is amazed at the acoustics,” Lovato said. “They’re used to playing in bars, dance halls, and stadiums.” To encourage attendance, the Fiesta Council has always kept ticket prices relatively low (currently between $16 and $56). On the day of the event, audience members get dressed up and arrive two or three hours before the show just to socialize, he said. “If you wanted to, you could just stay in the parking lot and eat. A huge part of this event is tailgating. I see people frying chicharrones in the parking lot, eating green chile bologna sandwiches on tortillas, or sipping champagne and nibbling on fruit and cheese,” he said. “It’s the whole gamut.”
At the 2019 Extravaganza, the musicians will be representing the future. In the past, many of the biggest names in mariachi have graced the stage. This year, Lovato said, all the solo artists appearing are local singers who grew up in Northern New Mexico, began playing mariachi at an early age, and are poised to take the form to the next level.
Headlining the evening will be Santiago Alberto, 26. Alberto is based in Los Angeles now, but he grew up in a musical family in Española. His mother, the mariachi singer Angel Espinoza, performed while pregnant with her son, and later left him in the wings to watch at performances. “He soaked everything up like a sponge,” she said. By age 7, he was singing and playing drums in the family band. A chance encounter at the Santa Fe flea market in the 1980s between his father and the Mexican musical superstar Juan Gabriel, who had a ranch and lived part-time in Nambé, changed everything. Alberto’s mother and father became friends with Gabriel, and the musician, who became Alberto’s godfather, was a mentor for him. “He thought it was cool that a young guy like me would like mariachi music so much,” he said. Gabriel died suddenly in 2016. Alberto was in the front row at his last concert.
Alberto plays seven instruments and gigs regularly with many of the most prominent mariachi artists in L.A. His music video “Amor de Estudiante” (“Student Love”) has more than 2.3 million views on YouTube. “We’re keeping our fingers crossed, hoping to be nominated for a Latin Grammy,” he said. It was Gabriel who suggested turning the song — an old Mexican pop ballad from the 1970s — into a mariachi song. “The message of the song is meant for a young singer,” Gabriel told Alberto. “That is quite accurate,” Alberto said. “I am definitely still learning about love.
“I’m part of a new generation,” Alberto said. “I’m trying to break the mold. I have my own twist on mariachi music. I don’t wear the typical traje [mariachi outfit]. I like to have a more contemporary, urban style.”
“It’s Santiago’s time,” said Krystle Lucero, a Fiesta Council member who helped select artists for the 2019 Extravaganza. “We always strive to bring the best musicians to the opera,” she said. “We’ve had a lot of the most famous groups and artists over the years. Santiago is there. He’s famous. His stars aligned and we wanted him.”
At 45, Carlos Medina, in a trademark black cowboy hat, may not have the baby-faced good looks of Alberto, but he is also breaking out in interesting directions. He is one of the most experienced musicians in Northern New Mexico. Like Alberto, he started in a family band at age 7, playing the accordion and singing. He was influenced by Norteño music from Mexico and bands like Los Tigres del Norte, as well as by the Northern New Mexico style of musicians like Al Hurricane and Darren Cordova, with whom he eventually worked. In 2006, he began an eight-year gig with El Gringo — that’s the singer Shawn Kiehne, a non-Hispanic native of Los Lunas who learned Spanish while working on his family’s ranch in Texas and sings “regular Mexican music.” They toured 38 states, playing in bars and at outdoor events and coliseums. “I remember playing for 36,000 at a Cinco de Mayo event in Dallas,” Medina said. Back in New Mexico, he started an acoustic trio and then a four-piece dance band, and worked constantly. In 2015, on a whim, he created a comedy skit and uploaded it on YouTube. The video went viral.
“In my stand-up act, I talk about growing up in Northern New Mexico. I expand on the lingo,” he said. In 2015, he was hired by Meow Wolf to become the organization’s first in-house performing artist. “My title is entertainer/artist/creator/writer/actor/comedian. I write songs, skits, I sing, play, act,” he said. “Meow Wolf produced my first CD. Vince [Kadlubek, CEO and co-founder] had a bigger vision for me than I had for myself.”
Jovita Enriquez, the third solo artist at the Extravaganza this year, went to Sweeney and Piñon elementary schools. She began singing and learning to play mariachi violin before she even reached high school. She was part of the first graduating class at New Mexico School for the Arts, in 2012, and studied voice there, including operatic performance. “People really like my voice,” she said. “I sing from my heart. They even hire me to come out alone with my surround-sound music [and no band]. They pay me just to sing.” Enriquez is 26, a single mother with a 2-year-old child. She was recently hired by United Airlines to train as a baggage clerk. “I love mariachi,” she said, “but making a career as a soloist is tough. So competitive.”
Backing up the soloists onstage at the opera and offering sets of their own will be the bands Mariachi Sonidos del Monte, from Santa Fe, and Mariachi Tesoro, from Tucson. The latter is the site of an international mariachi conference every spring. (Albuquerque has its own festival in July.) Baile Ilusion, a folklórico group made up of young people from the Santa Fe area, will also perform.
“The Fiestas have been going on since 1712,” Lovato said. “The Mariachi Extravaganza only started the year after 9/11, but it has become extremely popular. It’s great that we sell out every year. We get hardcore mariachi lovers, but also people interested in visiting an event at the opera house. We get tourists — visitors from New York, Texas, Alaska. We’re also starting to get the word out to more and more of the Mexican people who live around here as well. It’s special to come to a world-renowned venue and hear the best.” ◀
▼ Mariachi Extravaganza de Santa Fe
▼ Santa Fe Opera, 301 Opera Drive
▼ 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 31