Mariachi – a Uniquely Mexican Musical Tradition

By Julie Etra

Mexico has a diverse, regional, and rich musical history and it is mariachi that is probably played more than any other Mexican musical form. Mariachi originated in the state of Jalisco, particularly in and around Cocula, “la cuna del mariachi” (the cradle of mariachi), southwest of Guadalajara. In 2011, the United Nations Organization for Education, Science and Culture (UNESCO), added mariachi music to the organization’s list of Intangible Cultural Patrimony of Humanity.

Other traditional musical styles are son jarocho, corridos (19th-century narrative folk ballads sung by rural, working-class people on both sides of the border) narcocorridos, Tejano (Mexican/Texas border); conjunto (with the bajo sexto, a 12-string guitar); quebradita (a “little bit broken,” music for a particular dance style, with a lot of brass instruments); banda (a type of polka); ranchera (a genre of mariachi); and Norteño (northern Mexico). In the state of Oaxaca there is chilena music from the coastal regions, sones and jarabes in the Mixteca (a region in western Oaxaca and adjoining parts of Puebla and Guerrero); sones and huapangos in the Papaloapan basin, with harp and jarana (a small guitarlike instrument), marimba in the Valles Centrales; and Zapotec songs on the Isthmus (e.g., “El Feo”, originally written in Zapotec). Check out the band Paulina y el Buscapié from Oaxaca City; Paulina plays the jarana (they played here in Huatulco a few years back as part of the Amigos de la Musica concert series).

Origin of the Word Mariachi

The late Neal Erickson, musician and former writer for The Eye, wrote about mariachi for The Eye in 2012 (

He points out that “the consensus of modern scholars is that the word mariachi is indigenous to Mexico.” The etymology of the word indicates it came from the now-lost Coca language, spoken in and around Cocula in central Jalisco. Erickson adds that “Legend erroneously attributes the word to the French Intervention of the 1860s, explaining it as a corruption of the French word marriage [but] historical documents prove that both the word mariachi and the ensemble it designates pre-date the French occupation of Mexico.”

Warning – down the rabbit hole! Being the bibliophile that I am, I ordered Jesus Juáregui’s El mariachi: Símbolo musical de México, (Mariachi: Musical Symbol of Mexico) the authoritative work on the subject (2006, there are updated editions).

According to Juáregui, the first time the word showed up in print was in 1852: “Tambien se llama mariachi amanecerse en un parranda, en un baile. Se decia ‘amaneci en un mariachi’, ‘vengo de un mariachi.’ This translates to “It is also called mariachi when you greet the dawn in a party, at a dance. It was said ‘I woke up in a mariachi,’ ‘I come from a mariachi,’ in this case referring to a group of musicians. The baile, or dance, was also called fandago.

Development of the Musical Style and Instruments

Regardless of the origin of the word, mariachi gradually developed from the fusion of Aztec instruments (conch shells, teponaztlis [wooden slitted drums, see O’Connor article elsewhere in this issue]), huéhuetls [another Aztec percussion instrument], reed or clay flutes) with guitars and violins brought from Spain. In 1695, the Cocas (people from Cocula) invented the vihuela (5-string guitar) and, later, the guitarrón (4-string bass guitar), which replaced the Spanish lute and double bass. In the infancy of mariachi in the 1850s, the instruments included violin, harp, and a specific type of drum. By the end of the 19th century, there were several well-known mariachis in Cocula and Tecalitlán (south of Guadalajara). The region’s most famous example is perhaps Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlán, founded in 1897 by Gaspar Vargas López ​(1880-1969). At the time, most mariachi groups included a guitarrón, two violins, a vihuela and a chirimía (a double-reed wind instrument similar to an oboe).

Mariachi arrived in Mexico City in 1896 with strings and the voice of the José García group. At the beginning of the 20th century, Cirilo Marmolejo’s Mariachi ensemble donned charro suits – the style was immediately adopted and modified by successive ensembles. The charro outfits resembled clothes worn by vaqueros (horseman) of Jalisco: tailored woolen long pants and short jacket, festooned with gold or silver colored metal buckles, and the highly decorated wide-brimmed sombrero. The Porfiriato (period of governance of Porfirio Díaz, 1884-1910) was not a good time for the mariachi, since, like tequila, it was considered representative of the lower classes (although in 1905 and 1907, Díaz celebrated two parties with mariachi music).

With the Mexican Revolution (1910-21), the corrido became the musical companion to the struggle, providing the mariachi with lyrics. Once the country stabilized after almost a decade of war, filming of ranchera movies began, featuring mariachi music and providing much greater exposure.

In the 1930s, the Marmolejo group introduced the trumpet and in 1936, then presidential candidate Lázaro Cárdenas invited the Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlán to his electoral campaign, resulting in a revitalization of this genre of vernacular music, and the Vargas group (which is currently in its fifth generation of musicians) became popular.

Over the decades, the instruments and structure of the band have changed; Mariachi Marmolejo included a flute, which is no longer played. In most contemporary ensembles, the harp has also disappeared, and they do not include drums. Standards are the violin, guitarrón, vihuela, trumpet and voice.

Artists of Mariachi

Famous mariachi artists include the singers Jorge Negrete, José Alfredo Jiménez, Lucha Reyes, Pedro Infante, Lucha Villa, Antonio Aguilar, Vicente Fernández, Juan Gabriel, and the great female vocalist Lola Beltrán.

A close friend gave me a CD of the the group Mariachi Los Camperos, De Ayer Para Siempre (From Yesterday to Forever) recorded in 2019, for my birthday. While some of it is quite sentimental and schmaltzy (“schmaltz” is Yiddish for rendered chicken fat, “schmaltzy” means maudlin sentimentality). However, there are some great standards such as El Pasajero and Pajaro, in which the talents of the excellent singer and violinist Jesús “Chuy” Guzmán shine, along with a harmonizing chorus. And, of course, a few numbers include the Grito Mexicano (roughly equivalent to shrieking “yeehaw” in the U.S, but with musical adornment – see below!).

Arguably the most famous mariachi song is “El Rey” (The King), a symbol of Mexican maleness and independence written and recorded by José Alfredo Jiménez in 1971. Jiménez died in 1973; “El Rey” hit number one on the Mexican charts in 1974.

El Grito Mexicano/El Grito Ranchero

This is a lung-filled, prolonged but ‘”melodious” high-pitched note, cry, shout, yell, shriek, call, laugh, oink, or combo thereof, not easily described in English. It punctuates and characterizes many traditional mariachi songs; there are many competitive performances for duration, range, and quality.
This is very fun to google ( It is not exclusive to mariachi or male vocalists.

Female Mariachi

In 1948, first female mariachi group formed in Mexico City, the Aldelitas (Adelitas were women who actively participated in the Mexican Revolution, often seen with bandoleros). The group was purportedly inspired by an all-female Cuban band, discovered on the island by the group’s director.

In California, always a progressive state when it comes to culture (remember, it was part of Mexico until 1848), schools started teaching mariachi classes in the 1970s as part of a bilingual and multicultural education program. In 1994 Reyna de los Angeles emerged from this program and formed Mariachi Reyna de los Angeles. With its ensemble of violins, guitar, guitarrón, vihuela, trumpets and harmonized voices, the band is known for its fresh take on the mariachi tradition. The group also has had enormous impact in breaking new ground for women in a genre long dominated by men.

One of my favorite female bands is Flor de Toloache, based in New York City and founded by Mireya Ramos and Shae Fiol in 2008. Flor de Toloache first began playing in the New York City subways; since then, they have become a sensation, recognized for excellent composition, musicianship, and vocals with compelling harmonies, including Gritos Mexicanos. We were lucky to see them at an outdoor concert near our place north of the border. Amigos de la Musica, are you listening? (

For more on the first female mariachis check out this link: (
And yes, readers of The Eye, there is mariachi in Huatulco: