Mariachi Los Comparos performs
UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music professor Jesus Guzman (far right), who teaches a class about the music of Mexico, is also the musical director of Mariachi Los Camperos. Here the Grammy-winning group performs at El Pescador restaurant in Carson. Photo by Ann Summa.
Linda Stell remembers the party 52 years ago when she became part of history. Stell had pulled out some songbooks that she had brought back from visiting her aunt and uncle in Mexico. Donn Borcherdt, a UCLA music graduate student at the time, turned to Stell and told her: "I’m thinking of starting a mariachi group. I want you to be our singer."
Neither they nor the other members of Mariachi Uclatlán, as the group was called, knew that their newborn group would change mariachi forever, taking the traditional genre to places it had never been heard before.
"UCLA definitely played a role in elevating mariachi music," said Daniel Sheehy, an early Uclatlán member who is now the director and curator of the Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, which preserves and promotes international folk music worldwide. "When people used to say, ‘Why bother with that low-class music?’ you could tell them that it was being taught at a major university."
Mark Fogelquist, an early member of Uclatlán in the late 1960s wrote the first academic thesis on mariachi music, according to mariachi historian Jonathan Clark, another former Uclatlán member. UCLA students have played in some of the nation’s most renowned mariachis, including the Grammy Award-winning Mariachi Los Camperos de Nati Cano and Mariachi Sol de Mexico de José Hernández.
The university also produced cultural influencers like Sheehy, who has elevated mariachi’s stature in the U.S. by producing concerts and albums, awarding grants and writing the 2006 book, "Mariachi Music in America." And in an ultimate nod to Mexican-American musicians and aficionados, the first mariachi school in Mexico didn’t choose a native to be its director. It turned to Leticia Soto, a Uclatlán player who got three degrees from UCLA including her doctorate in ethnomusicology this year.
No one knows for certain when mariachis started, but since the early 1800s, string bands comprised of members of the violin, harp and guitar families have been popular in rural Mexico, Clark said. While the first groups played with what the Spanish brought to colonial Mexico, mariachis developed two unique instruments that are still in use today: the vihuela, a small, guitar-like instrument, and the guitarrón, a bass guitar.
Contemporary mariachi, with its flashy charro outfits and sombreros, is an urban phenomenon that evolved mainly in Mexico City. From the 1930s to the 1950s, mariachis accompanied popular ranchera (country-style) singers in movies and on radio and, later, television. The festive music, with its lyrics often yearning for past loves, became Mexico’s music.
The popularity of mariachis started to wane in Mexico by the early 1960s, but it rose again in Los Angeles among Mexican immigrants. By then Borcherdt, the UCLA music graduate student, had caught the mariachi bug and decided to start a group at UCLA.
The early mariachis visited the cantinas of East L.A. to watch Mexican groups perform and even performed for free around Los Angeles. But early mariachi members also supported political causes such as the United Farm Workers (UFW), the prolific union led by the late Cesar Chavez.
"The UFW put us on a truck and they took us from field to field in the Delano area," Harding recalled. "We played to get field workers’ attention and then organizers spoke to workers and signed them up."
By the mid-1970s, Fogelquist — a UCLA graduate student in ethnomusicology who wrote the first master’s thesis on the song "jalisciense," the quintessential mariachi song — was leading Uclatlán. After Fogelquist graduated, he took Uclatlán off campus, where the group turned professional.
In 1989, ethnomusicology professor Steve Loza, recruited Nati Cano, founder of Mariachi Los Camperos, and Juan Manuel Cortez, who was the musical director of Mariachi Uclatlán, to teach a class on the music of Mexico. Jesus "Chuy" Guzman, the musical director of Los Camperos, took over as instructor in 2000.
Sergio Alonso said that when he was growing up in the San Fernando Valley, he took no interest in performing mariachi music at family parties. But Cano’s class inspired him to embrace it — and changed his career path. Alonso performed for the student group, Mariachi UCLA.
Alonso played the trumpet but Guzman, who continues to teach at UCLA, asked him if he could play harp on Los Camperos’ tour. "My mother almost killed me for that," said Alonso, who was a physiological science major and was thinking about going to medical school. "But it was the best move I could ever make."
A new generation is changing the face of the genre. Once limited to mostly males, contemporary mariachi features all-women and coed groups.
Leticia Soto, who helped launch Mariachi de Uclatlán in 2006, wrote her doctoral dissertation on women in mariachi and the uphill battles they face. When she started playing mariachi music at San Fernando Junior High School in the 1990s, her mother was mortified.
Like many Mexicans, Soto’s mom, she said, thought "mariachi is for men, the musicians are always drunk, they always play in bars, they can’t read or write, and the list goes on. But my mom’s negative idea about mariachi music changed when she saw a bunch of seventh- and eighth-graders playing the music."
In 2012, Soto was hired as the director of the Mariachi Ollin Yoliztli School in the famed Plaza Garibaldi. It is the first Mexican school to offer a technical degree in the music. Soto said that that after the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization recognized mariachi as an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, Mexico City officials decided to open the school in an effort to formalize the music.
"When I was first announced as the director of the school, one astonished reporter said, ‘How is the director of a school that teaches music that is associated with machismo a woman?’ " Soto said. "Mariachi is not just for men, and if I was selected to lead this project, it’s because someone saw qualifications in me and not my gender."

A longer version of this story appeared in UCLA Magazine