This is a love story. It begins in Guadalajara and is rekindled four times a day in room 1204 of Chula Vista High, a setting that is not romantic. The windows of the band room, which used to be the auto shop, are coated with grime so thick it could be the same grime from when it was the auto shop nine years ago. The interior walls are snaked with cords like varicose veins.
“Perform: IN TUNE,” urges a sign. “Perform: IN RHYTHM. Perform: IN HISTORICAL STYLE.” Pedro Infante and Jorge Negrete, patron saints of mariachi, smile down from their posters at Woody Woodpecker gel-spiked hair, frayed jeans, and T-shirts that say “Michael Jackson King of Pop.” They smile upon the black gum in the carpet, the battered cupboards, violins, trumpets, backpacks, and guitars.
After tuning their instruments, the students sing intervals (“one, THREE, one,” “one, FIVE, one,” “one, THREE, one,”) to warm up their voices because mariachis sing/play, sing/play as if switching from one galloping horse to another.
“One FOUR one.” The hollow, wooden vihuelas, guitarrones, and guitars have been cracked, mended with Scotch tape, and cracked again. One trumpeter has forgotten his valve oil again. The mariachis in training are tired because zero period, the class before this one, started at 6:35 a.m., and it’s now 7:40. But, “one, EIGHT, one,” they sing in unison, their elastic voices flying from middle C to high C and back again as a blond man with a mustache thumps out scales on an electronic keyboard.
El Güero, “the blond guy,” as he was called when he was a professional mariachi, does not look tired. The middle and high school students who match their voices to his all day have black hair and dark eyes in a room, a school, and a region where most people have black hair and dark eyes. But El Güero has blue eyes, the un-Mexican name of Mark Fogelquist, and a medal somewhere in his office or house (he never showed it to me or even mentioned it) called the Reconocimiento Ohtli, the highest award of the Mexican government for individuals contributing to the well-being of Mexicans abroad.
How did this happen?
“We call him the Yoda of Mariachi,” says Diamante Consuelo Cintrón, age 17. She executes a little bow, as if doing obeisance to the master.
“His commitment is total,” says Jilanie Desert, also 17.
“I knew who he was before I had actually met him,” says Karla Díaz, a 19-year-old alumnus of Fogelquist’s high school performing group, Mariachi Chula Vista. She thought it was odd, she admits, that he was not Mexican. “But I heard them play and I knew I wanted to be in that group. It didn’t matter to me. The proof is in the pudding.”
In July of 1961, Mark Fogelquist was 13 and spending the summer against his will in Guadalajara. His father, a Swedish-American from the Pacific Northwest, was a professor of Spanish at UCLA who traveled to Spain, Puerto Rico, and Mexico during sabbaticals and semesters abroad. It was his fault, in other words, that Mark was not playing Little League but standing beside a platform where a mariachi band in full costume was performing at the start of the Guadalajara summer session.
As often happens at 13, Fogelquist fell in love.
“That was it,” he says 49 years later. “It was the coolest thing I’d ever heard in my life.”
It was not the first time he’d heard the violin, but it was the first time he’d heard it played that way, because Pacific Palisades, where he played in his school orchestra, was 98 percent white. He didn’t know what to call the feeling — alegría, joy, elation — but for the rest of the summer, Fogelquist sought out mariachi bands and absorbed the language he hadn’t spoken since second grade, when his father’s work took them to Puerto Rico. When he returned to Pacific Palisades, the music vanished again.
“From the time I was in ninth grade until I went to UCLA, I didn’t hear a single note of mariachi music,” he says. “There was a six-year gap.”
UCLA, however, was the one place in the world that had a formal mariachi class in 1965. Fogelquist joined the performing group, Mariachi Uclatlán, and found it had no ethnic requirements. “We were all white,” he says. “Well, not white, but there were no Mexicans in the mariachi group when I started. The guy that played the guitarrón was a court musician from Indonesia. We had a Chinese violinist.”
For Fogelquist, the only thing better than listening to mariachi was playing it. He finished his undergraduate degree and started in on a master’s. The director of the program put him in charge of Mariachi Uclatlán.
“They still hired a professional mariachi from Mexico who was the ethnic advisor,” he says, but Fogelquist enrolled the students and gave them grades and organized everything. “I really got into it, and got excited about it.”
Fogelquist doubled the group’s practice time, held rehearsals during Christmas, Easter, and summer vacation, and the Anglo-Indonesian-Chinese-polyglot mariachis started to get freelance jobs or chambas. Members of the group, instead of leaving at semester’s end, played on. By this time, Fogelquist says, they weren’t students. They were fanatics.
For Fogelquist, this meant doing research for a master’s thesis called “Rhythm and Form in the Contemporary Son Jalisciense,” in which he would explain how notes from the Western high-art tradition had been harnessed by itinerant musicians living from Guadalajara to San José in states of poverty not outwardly conducive to joy and used to express unremitting joy.
The group he joined in Mexico, for example, operated on a piece-work basis. Mariachi Internacional performed at Carnitas Uruapan near the Caliente Race Track in Tijuana, where they were required by the dueño — who paid them nothing — to be in service six days a week from 1:00 p.m. until 9:00 p.m., after which time another group was in service until dawn. Both groups earned $2 a song playing the requests of American tourists, young men, couples, working women, and families. Weekdays brought fewer customers, rainy or cold weather fewer still, and Lent least of all. Breaks were staggered so that the group never stopped playing; while one musician slipped off to the men’s room or to eat dinner, the band played on.
The repertoire, too, was staggering — an estimated 2000 songs. In his thesis, Fogelquist relates the story of Carlos Pacheco, a young vihuela player in Mariachi Internacional who devoted three hours a day for an entire year to learning compositions that had been requested that he didn’t know. During Fogelquist’s own extended periods of apprenticeship with the group, he could keep up with only the names of some 25 percent of the songs requested; “remembering melodies, chords, and verses was beyond me.”
Fogelquist sought out mariachis working north of the border, too, studying and playing with, among others, the Vaqueros at the Carioca Restaurant in East L.A. One night, a woman named Ina Nyul — “I am morena,” she says, or dark, “but my father was Hungarian” — traveled north from Agua Prieta on vacation and ate in the Carioca.
She noticed, as so many did, the blond mariachi. “It was a nice novelty,” she says. “My friend and I were sitting down, and my friend was saying in Spanish, ‘Who is this important mariachi guy?’ and Mark said, ‘No, they’ — he pointed to the Mexican players — ‘they are the important mariachis.’”
“The owner of the place introduced us,” Nyul says, and their courtship began.
The scenes that led Fogelquist from here to Chula Vista can be arranged into a series of images and regarded as if through that perfect lens of the 1970’s, the 3-D View-Master:
In 1973, Mariachi Uclatlán is hired to play for Sunday brunch every weekend at the Los Angeles Airport Marriott. The band members are smiling in their trajes de charro because the Marriott pays union scale and their customers are spreading the word, hiring the group for private parties of every kind.
In 1975, Ina Nyul weds Mark Fogelquist, who like each member of his band is making $20,000 a year, which is $6000 more than Fogelquist’s younger brother James, who has a PhD from Yale, is paid to teach at Mt. Holyoke College.
Within two years, Mark and Ina can buy a house with mariachi money, and in 1978, Mark drops his pursuit of a PhD.
In 1981, the two Fogelquist brothers, Mark and James, stand in front of a Mexican restaurant in Orange that they’ve bought after forming a corporation with six members of the former Mariachi Uclatlán. They look nervous, for good reason. From their pooled resources of $72,000, they have $80 left.
The next slide shows a line of customers out the door and into the parking lot of El Mariachi Restaurant and Bar.
Jump to a weary pair of Fogelquist brothers 12 years later. From 1981 to 1993, they have unlocked the restaurant at 10:00 in the morning, dressed as managers. For 12 years, they have slipped into the back room at 8:00 p.m. and changed, like violin superheroes, into their trajes de charro. For 12 years, they have also played 200 private parties per year.
In 1993, the sign in front of the restaurant says “Sold.” The brother who was a professor becomes a professor again, and Mark Fogelquist becomes a middle school teacher for native speakers of Spanish in Wenatchee, Washington.
The slide that now clicks into place could easily have been taken in Chula Vista but was snapped in Wenatchee in 1995. In the picture, three kids whose parents have moved to Wenatchee from rural Mexico to pick apples are standing at the Wenatchee airport. They don’t have suitcases because they don’t have enough possessions to fill one. They’re out of their minds with excitement. They’re traveling with Mr. Fogelquist to see 700 musicians and the greatest mariachi group in the world, Mariachi Vargas, at a conference in Albuquerque.
“At first,” Fogelquist says, “I didn’t want to hear another mariachi song. But I had these kids all day long. They asked about what I’d done. I brought in my violin, pictures of my group, CDs. For Cinco de Mayo that first year, I got the kids together, we rehearsed after school, and we did two songs. The Mexican parents were there, and the place went bananas.”
So the school decided to add a mariachi class to the curriculum. “They told me I had to get at least 15 students.”
The day the class started, he had 47.
Fogelquist asked them in Spanish, “How many of you have ever played a musical instrument?”
Only one kid raised a hand.
How am I going to do this? Fogelquist thought. But the custodian found about 20 guitars that had been sitting in a warehouse for ten years. “We put strings on them, cleaned them up, and brought them into class at the end of the first week.” Fogelquist owned a guitarrón, a vihuela, and a violin, but he was still short. He had 24 instruments and 47 kids. He sat the class down and said, “What are we going to do?”
The boys and girls in the room were from traditional villages in Mexico where boys did one thing and the girls did another.
The boys told Fogelquist, “We’re going to play the guitar.”
The girls said, “We’ll sing.”
So that’s what they did. As happens now in Chula Vista, two or three of his students were innately talented. “What took other kids a week to learn, they learned in four minutes. They would be in my classroom every day after school. I couldn’t go home.”
At the end of October, the principal came to Fogelquist and said, ‘Could you do a performance?’
“We only know two songs,” Fogelquist said.
“It doesn’t matter,” the principal said. This was a parent meeting for the migrant workers whose kids were in the school, and normally only nine or ten parents showed up. That night, however, the room was packed. One hundred and twenty parents funneled in.
“These parents,” Fogelquist says, “were right out of the field. Mud on their boots or huaraches. The humblest of the humble. They went crazy. They said, ‘Otra! Otra!’”
I said, “There isn’t another one. That’s all we know!”
So three kids went with Fogelquist to the Albuquerque mariachi conference in 1995. They came back and told everyone how great it was. The next year, after a rummage sale and a tamale sale and 35 carwashes, he took 27 kids. And the year after that, Fogelquist’s unknown group from a previously un-Mexican part of the Pacific Northwest did the impossible. They won.
“All these groups from Texas that had been playing for 10 or 15 years, they were shocked. Wenatchee? Where did these kids come from?”
Three years later, in 2000, the Mexican government awarded Fogelquist the Reconocimiento Ohtli for individuals contributing to the well-being of Mexicans abroad. Primer Impacto, a daily TV show, did a feature. So did Sábado Gigante.
In the next slide, it’s May of 2001, and Fogelquist is about to open, for the first time, the door of room 1204 at Chula Vista High. He and Ina have put the Wenatchee house up for sale because his mother, recently widowed and frail, needs him to be back in California, and he’s been hired by the Sweetwater School District to do what he did in Wenatchee. When he opens the door, he will find a room full of dirty engine blocks, old wheels, and transmissions. He has not yet been told by the school’s orchestra teacher, “If you take any of my students, I’ll break your legs,” but that’s next.
Fogelquist’s hand is on the doorknob, and a new generation of mariachi lovers is about to hold cracked guitars.
Diamante Consuelo Cintrón, for example. She’s a vihuelera in the advanced performance class, which means she plays the small, high-pitched Mexican vihuela not just in room 1204 but on stage when Mariachi Chula Vista plays 150 paid gigs per year.
Diamante is long and thin, wears braces and glasses, a ponytail, the kind of jeans called skinny, and an expression of slightly amused gravity. She looks like a ballerina in disguise, and when she picks up a viheula, it’s clear she’s channeled all the en pointe into her narrow, nimble hands.
Of her introduction to mariachi six years ago, Diamante says, “I wanted to be in guitar class. It was full. And I said, ‘Well, what else has guitar in it? I want to learn how to play guitar.’ And they’re like, ‘We have a great mariachi program!’ and I was like, ‘What’s mariachi?’ and they’re like, ‘Don’t worry, they have guitar in there. You’re going to learn how to play it.’ So I signed up.”
The day she introduced herself to Fogelquist, Diamante used the name she offers all white people.
“When I walked into the class,” she says, “I saw — I know it’s bad, but I saw he was a Caucasian man, so I figured he wouldn’t be able to say my name correctly in Spanish. The usual teacher’s assumption of my name is ‘Duh-mant-ay,’ and I really do not like that at all. So I said, ‘Hi, my name is Diamante, but call me Diamond.’ And he just started laughing because I was pretty assertive. It turns out he speaks better Spanish than I do. He probably knows more Spanish than some Mexicans in this community.”
Diamante’s mother is of Mexican descent, born in Fresno, and her father is Puerto Rican, born in New York, she thinks, but she isn’t sure. “I haven’t talked to him in a while,” she says.
“He played congas,” — she pronounces it CONE-guhs, “and my grandfather played this weird thing from Puerto Rico — you, like, scratch it — and they used to get together, his side of the family, and jam out.”
Diamante’s older sister would dance, and Diamante learned salsa and the merengue, and later on, when her sister danced in the Ballet Folklorico class at Chula Vista High, Diamante paid no particular attention to the music. “I thought she looked pretty in that bright dress.”
Diamante’s sister graduated from Chula Vista High, but one brother dropped out two weeks before graduation, she says, and is now in prison. “He had a lot of theft,” she says, and got mixed up in drugs instead of the alternative she imagines for him: enrolling in the Chula Vista School for Creative and Performing Arts, the magnet program that offers, among many things, mariachi and Ballet Folklorico. “It has requirements,” she says. “You go to school and you have to do something productive. His friends went the wrong way, and he just followed.”
There was another brother, too. When Diamante puts on her long dark skirt with silver chains and buttons up the side and her gold moño and her embroidered jacket and sings “Amor de los Dos” to a room full of veterans or wedding guests, she’s singing, also, for one who would like to be there and isn’t, the young man with close-cropped hair feeding a baby in a photograph in her family’s apartment. That’s her oldest brother, Ricky, who was killed in a car accident at 24.
“We were going on a family trip to Mexico,” Diamante says. Diamante, who was nine then, her mother, her sister, and Ricky’s two children were passengers, and Ricky was driving. Everyone in the car survived except him.
“Since I was little, he always wanted me to sing, no matter what. So I guess mariachi was kind of like, ‘I get what I want,’” which was to play the guitar, “and he got what he wanted: I still sing.”
She sings and sings and sings, in fact. To finance the purchase of embroidered trajes, to pay for plane tickets to Guadalajara and Wenatchee and Washington DC, plus the microphones and the instruments and the sound system and the two vans that carry the band members all over the county, Mariachi Chula Vista plays as many as three times in a single weekend, for weddings, quinceañeras, birthday parties, school ceremonies, Catholic masses, beach festivals, and fundraising dinners. This can make it hard to do homework for AP English, AP History, and AP Music Theory, which Diamante took simultaneously last year, or Algebra II and Honors Rhetoric, which she’s taking this year, or to have a boyfriend, go to Homecoming, see movies, or sleep.
“When I think that I don’t want to continue,” Diamante says, she asks herself, “What would Ricky tell you?” and her answer is: “He would tell you stick it out.”
Sticking it out means pleasing the Yoda of Mariachi, who like the Yoda of The Empire Strikes Back has one standard: “Do or do not. There is no try.” According to his students, Fogelquist does not like improper Spanish or improper English. He does not like lazy performance. “This is the varsity team,” he tells kids who flirt with the idea of playing varsity sports while singing mariachi with him. He demands, Diamante says, that his students not just get it right, but get it perfect.
So Diamante doesn’t try. She does. She sings for Ricky and her mother, who oversees the cleaning of two buildings downtown. “She works from five in the morning until three, four, five, six, seven, eight o’clock,” Diamante says. “Her job is to supervise, but being my mother, she can’t just look, she does it herself. She does what they do. And then she gets side jobs cleaning other people’s houses. That takes long hours. I go help her sometimes. It’s quicker.”
When she’s not singing mariachi or doing homework or helping her mother or practicing the guitar, she listens to reggae, R&B, hip-hop, rock, alternative rock, country music, and oldies from the time she calls “back in the day,” such as the Temptations, whose harmonies she calls “ridiculously awesome.” In the end, she hopes music will take her somewhere, but it isn’t her only plan.
“I want to go to UC Santa Barbara. That’s my dream school. I’m going to apply to UC Merced. If I don’t get accepted to those two schools, I’m going to look out of state. To learn more about the world.” She wants to study business and hopes to travel for her job the way she has traveled with mariachi.
“I love music, and if I can become very successful at it, I will take that opportunity, but if not, I’ll find something else I have a passion for. To be able to sustain my family. So my mom doesn’t have to work the way she does now.”
On the stage with Diamante at Martin Luther King Junior High is Jilanie Desert. It’s the annual fundraiser for the local chapter of the American GI Forum, a Hispanic veteran’s group, so Jilanie and Diamante and 12 others, including Fogelquist, are preparing to sing in their silver-trimmed trajes de charro for men who’ve been to war and women who waited for them and Hispanic fans of mariachi music and patriots of all races sitting at white tables decorated with American flags.
“Test, test, test,” says a trumpet player into the mike.
Jilanie, like Diamante, is 17, and she’s been in mariachi classes since she was ten. Like El Güero, she looks at first like the wrong person for the part.
“When people ask me why there is a black girl in mariachi,” she says, “I tell them I’m actually Cuban and Haitian, and they go, ‘Okay.’”
For a soloist, Jilanie is shy. She speaks softly and dresses more to disappear than to show off her Billie Holliday looks, which you have to go to Myspace to see clearly. In a black-and-white photograph, her hair framed by yellow roses, Jilanie looks off into a glamorous Somewhere, but in person, she wears either the military splendor of a traje de charro or a T-shirt and jeans.
Jilanie heard Mariachi Chula Vista perform at her school when she was in 4th grade and decided that was how, where, and with whom she would play the violin some day. Her mother, who came to California via New York and Cuba and speaks English, Spanish, French, and Creole, not only agreed to the plan but made it possible, Jilanie says, for her to focus.
“When I was in middle school and starting on the violin, she would take the TV from the living room and lock it in her bedroom so I would have nothing else to do but practice,” she says.
Once Jilanie was old enough to enroll in Fogelquist’s class, she had to audition for the performing group. She practiced one or two hours a day on weekdays and three hours a day on weekends, singing “El Reloj” and “El Pasajero” and “Sabor de Mi” in Spanish to an empty room: “So much of my life, I’ve given to you/ that by now you can’t help but retain a trace of me.” When she made the group and played her first gig, what should be requested but “Sabor de Mi”?
Nobody knew the song, she says, but she did, so she said, “I know it,” and stepped forward, her leg trembling under the too-big skirt of the traje that had been altered to almost but not quite fit her, and her leg kept trembling through the whole song. That is her first memory of stage fright, no trace of which is visible on stage now.
Like Diamante, Jilanie loves mariachi but feels she needs a backup plan. “No disrespect to mariachi, but unless you get into a really high level mariachi group — and women can only go to Mariachi Reyna de Los Angeles — you still need a side job. It would really only be a hobby.” She wants to move to Pennsylvania, where her father lives, and go to college there, and maybe be a news anchor.
For now, though, she stands on a stage framed by basketball hoops and a mural of Martin Luther King and a Sunbonnet Sue quilt commemorating the class of 2007. Her hair is smoothed back so that she looks like the Myspace Jilanie, and when she plays her violin it looks like it’s been tucked into the crook of her chin since birth.
Karla Díaz knows something about having a backup plan. She’s 19 and living in the future that Diamante and Jilanie see in the hazy distance, the place where you go to the college you worked so hard to reach and leave the friends you’ve been spending hours of every day with for years and years and must, in another way, not try but do.
She joined her first mariachi group at 12, so she has a thick pile of trajes: navy blue, royal blue, green, and black, the skirts longer each time the sastre came from Tijuana with samples of cloth and botanadura (the brass or silver buttons joined by decorative chains).
Like Jilanie and Diamante, Karla was drawn first to an instrument. She played the violin at age ten in a National City elementary school orchestra, arriving at 7:00 a.m. every weekday for practice. In sixth grade, while performing with the orchestra, she heard Mariachi Chula Vista. “My mom went up to talk to the director after. She wanted her kid to play that, too.”
Karla’s parents had come to the United States from Tijuana and Mexicali when they were teenagers. Her father worked in construction and her mother studied to become a nurse, all the while seeing to Karla’s education. “My mother wanted me to try things,” Karla says. To study with Fogelquist, Karla had to transfer to Chula Vista Middle School, so her parents obtained the transfer and drove her there.
None of it was easy. Mariachi, Karla says, “helped me learn time-management skills. It was always after school; it was always very time-consuming. Monday through Friday, sometimes three times a week from 5:00 to 8:00, and sometimes on weekends you’d get home at 12:00 or 1:00. Long days.”
Her mother has kept every scrap of paper from those years, all the calendars that listed upcoming performances, every concert program, conference schedule, ticket, photograph, and news story, including the one written for the New York Times in 2005. It took time not only to perform but to drive from one end of the county to the other, and it was impossible to cram while the guests were whacking a piñata at a three-year-old’s party, so she learned to plan ahead, study at home, and accept missing her own family parties. “They knew,” she says, “that if it was on a Saturday, I wouldn’t be there. Or I would only be there for an hour. ‘Oh, Karla,’ they would say, ‘mariachi girl.’”
And all that time she took AP classes in world history, English, and composition, Calculus AB and BC, statistics, and English literature, and she graduated with a 4.0 that earned her admission to UCSD. A planned double major there in math and economics plus a job at the Converse store does not leave time to play music any more, though she tried it for a while in the summer. In September, she decided, reluctantly, to give up her place in a band formed by previous graduates of the program.
“School starts on Friday,” she says, “and I’m working. So it was a huge decision. I had to think about it a lot. Should I continue? Or should I move on? Should I quit the group?”
The main thing she learned from Fogelquist was, ironically, the lesson that now made her set aside her violin.
“It’s not something he told me, but I got it from observing the way he teaches. To have success, to be a leader, you have to give it 110 percent. Your full commitment.
“He does anything — anything — to help the group. If somebody doesn’t have a ride, he’ll drive back and forth to pick up all the kids. The way he’s dedicated to maintain the group’s standards is amazing to me. He does so much. That’s what it takes. A lot of people see the group and think it’s amazing for a mariachi in high school. But when you’re there every day, and you see what it takes to make it like that…You have to give up a lot. Not just for mariachi. For anything. It takes work.”
She looks at the pile of mariachi programs and the cloth of the beautiful trajes she will not be wearing and says, with a mix of nostalgia and resolve, that what she has to commit to now is school.
There are boys, too, of course. The traditional mariachi band was all men. But the seven boys playing trumpet or guitarrón or violin or guitar in Mariachi Chula Vista are even shyer in person than Jilanie, and they do not say anything remotely like Call me Diamond. They would prefer not to be called at all, but if you must call and you’re a female, it’s best if you identify yourself as a journalist so that no one who happens to be in the living room at the time thinks you’re a would-be girlfriend.
José Casillas, 13, has two sisters in mariachi, one who still plays in the group as a local college student and one who’s earned a place at UC Berkeley. José is so small and thin in his traje and his face is so boyish under spiked hair that his nickname is Pepito. When Pepito sings in his astonishing voice — Perdóname/ Si te he ofendido/ Perdóname/ Ten compasión (“Pardon me if I’ve offended you, pardon me, have compassion!”) — or any other lament of love and longing, the audience yells high-pitched appreciative gritos and erupts in applause.
Eduardo Ruiz, 15, plays the trumpet because he wanted to make his grandfather, who lives in Tijuana, proud, and the way he plays the trumpet would make anyone proud.
José González, 16, started out on violin in the seventh grade, but Fogelquist asked him to try the guitarrón, which he defines as “the big guitar-looking thing,” and when he plays it now it sounds like a heartbeat you can’t live without.
Guillermo Angulo, 16, stayed after school every day for two hours his freshman year, practicing and practicing and practicing the violin. He plays earnestly, gravely, lyrically now, maintains a GPA above 4.0, and hopes his little brother, too, will play.
Max Guerrero, 16, plays the guitar and sings for his mother, who was born in Guadalajara, saying, “It motivates me to see her happy when I play.” His favorite book is The Catcher in the Rye, his favorite class is AP Physics, and his GPA in the fall of 2010 was 4.3.
Joseph Durant, 17, a thoughtful, determined guitarronero, takes calculus B/C and AP Music Theory, listens to mariachi music not just for school but for fun, and says he plays not to get girls or win a scholarship but “to keep on getting better. I want to be the best.” If you press him really hard you will learn that while auditioning for the best guitarroneros in the world at the annual conference in Albuquerque, where eager students from all over the United States come in hopes of being picked for the master class, Joseph Durant was selected three out of three times.
In other words, if you were 15 and female and wanted to know a boy worth checking in on, you would do well to sign up for mariachi class, and if you were 12 and a boy and you wanted friends who had no intention of dropping out or flunking school, you would do well to do the same.
In the parking lot behind room 1204, José and Gloria Casillas are eating lunch from Styrofoam. They are past, present, and future mariachi parents because their oldest daughter, Gemma, has left Mariachi Chula Vista for Berkeley, but their next oldest, Gloria, a student at San Diego City College, and their youngest, 13-year-old José, called Pepito, are extracting themselves and their music cases from the backseat of the tiny car being used right now as a mobile lunch room.
It’s hot. The school is one hour away from the beginning of a two-week holiday, and the air feels like one of those Pillsbury dough cans that’s about to pop. Gloria wears a T-shirt, a Guatemalan headband, torn camouflage canvas shoes, and a smile like the sun. She carries her guitar in the autumn heat toward the band room where Max, Guillermo, Jilanie, Diamante, and the others spend most lunch periods together, strumming guitars, eating, talking, and scribbling the last few answers to math assignments.
Gloria and Pepito’s father says in Spanish that he and his wife grew up in Mexicali and Tijuana, where they used to play on a soccer team together. Every May 10 for seven years, they serenaded the mothers of all the players on the team for Día de las Madres. Gloria Senior would play the guitar, and so would some of José’s brothers and his sister, and they would sing “Las Mañanitas” on doorsteps and yards and sidewalks. It took all night, he says, to reach every house.
When José finishes eating, he slips into room 1204 to listen to Pepito and Gloria play what I think at first is “Cielito Lindo” because that’s the sheet music on their metal stands, but no one is really using the sheet music. They’re singing from memory. Max Guerrero, the boy who likes physics and The Catcher in the Rye, stands up to sing his part. Jilanie joins him. Some are still getting out their instruments, fiddling with buckles and cases, but Max doesn’t need the words, and he’s not looking at the litter on the floor or the black gum in the carpet. Guillermo’s violin rises to meet Max’s voice, Diamante’s vihuela thrums quietly under her fingertips, and the guitarrón on Joseph’s knee murmurs deep down like the waves of a rocking sea. Eduardo’s trumpet, louder than the voices, louder than words, brings in the jubilance Fogelquist first heard 50 years ago in Guadalajara.
But Fogelquist is not quite satisfied. “Not going to make it like that, guys,” he says, lowering his violin. “A little bit faster. Not a lot. Just a little. So it has a little vitality to it!”
Pedro Infante and Jorge Negrete look down from immortality on purple shoelaces, flip flops, Vans, and fauxhawks. The group plays a little bit faster.
“Better,” Fogelquist says. “It’s getting better.”
They move song to song, each bow rising within seconds of the last note to play the first note of the next. Pepito’s high voice is like a breeze through the unwashed windows. His T-shirt reads “Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix.” His words float down and rise up again in the heat, gliding on outstretched wings above an invisible flame. Though the words are about crying, the music leaves no space for sadness, filling up the room until there is nothing but alegría.
Mariachi Chula Vista