Women’s liberation comes to the world of mariachi in Los Angeles premiere
From left, Elia Saldana, Sal López, Ruth Livier, Esperanza América and Geoffrey Rivas / Grettel Cortes

LOS ANGELES — We had quite a theater-filled weekend: Friday night, Agnes of God at the Morgan-Wixson Theatre in Santa Monica, John Pielmeier’s 1979 play about a young woman who had been caged at home all throughout her childhood, out of her mother’s fear of the world, and who winds up, unprepared for modern life, in a Roman Catholic convent, where she becomes pregnant and delusional. On Saturday night, the local premiere of American Mariachi, about young women in the 1970s who want to form a mariachi ensemble. And on Sunday afternoon, at A Noise Within, a rare revival of George Bernard Shaw’s Misalliance, dating from 1909-10, which satirizes British patriarchy and the entire edifice of “gentlemanliness” which is constructed to keep women at home, domesticated, subservient, respectably married off, out of earshot of such horrible words as “damn,” and definitely out of the voting booths.

Funny how the theme of oppression of women keeps coming back in the playhouse. I guess it goes way back—to Lysistrata, and maybe further.

This city’s world-renowned Latino Theater Company offers the Los Angeles premiere of José Cruz González’s comedy American Mariachi with a larger-than-life cast, live music, and a long-delayed message of gender equality.

Since its 2018 premiere at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts, American Mariachi has been produced across the U.S., at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago, the Alley Theatre in Houston, and at the Old Globe, South Coast Repertory and Pacific Conservatory Theatre in Southern California. Four of the current performers—Esperanza América as cousin Boli, Elia Saldaña as Lucha Morales, Crissy Guerrero as Soyla Reyna, and Sal López as the family patriarch Federico Morales—reprise the roles they debuted in an early staged reading at Denver Center’s Colorado New Play Summit.

Directed by José Luis Valenzuela and featuring an on-stage all-male mariachi band and an all-female band comprising the lead women characters, with original arrangements by music director Cynthia Reifler Flores, American Mariachi is a joyous adventure on the gender barricades. If you love mariachi music (and come on, who doesn’t?) you owe yourself a treat: Go see it while you can—through June 9.

“The play is about a group of women who adopt mariachi during a time when that wasn’t permitted,” explains González. “Mariachi was always male-dominated; for women to enter that world was a challenge on many fronts. The characters in the play come together because of their love of the music, but also because Lucha discovers that her mother, who is living with dementia, suddenly comes alive whenever she hears one certain song. That begins the journey for this young woman — to see if she can bring the music back to her mother.”

Is this story from half a century ago still meaningful?

American Mariachi speaks loudly to Latino Theater Company’s core audience, but also to women everywhere,” says Valenzuela. “Women today are still struggling for equal rights and men continue to take their voices away. The live music and comedy guarantee that American Mariachi remains highly entertaining—but there’s a tough story underneath the surface. We want our production to bring that out and give it true meaning.”

Like most comedy, American Mariachi exploits familiar tropes that audiences will recognize: the domineering, male chauvinist father figure, the long-suffering wife, the rebellious children, the saintly family friend, the tragic misunderstanding owing to pride, jealousy and lack of communication, and most of all the yearning of women to be heard, to stand out, to make a greater contribution to society. We know from the outset there will be a satisfying ending and that the sun will forever shine on women who want to achieve more in life.

In real time, of course, we know the fight for equality goes on—and on and on and on. Which accounts for why theatrical producers are still mounting such plays. It’s probably safe to predict that within a year or two—the way things are heading with the Supreme Court—we’ll be seeing plays about women needing abortions who can no longer legally get them in their state, or anywhere in the United States. A luta continua, as the Portuguese say. The struggle continues. Not coincidental, then, that the protagonist of this play is named Lucha, the Spanish word for struggle.

Lucha (Elia Saldaña) has put her own educational plans on hold to care for her mother Amalia (Ruth Livier), while her father Federico (Sal López) is out earning money for the family as a mariachi musician (and his band is very much a part of the action). When Lucha discovers her mother’s reaction to that one particular song, that strangely enough, Federico refuses to play or even hear—he breaks the only copy of a demo 45 rpm recording he made decades before—she decides to form her own mariachi band, teaming up with her feisty cousin Boli (Esperanza América). One by one, they recruit an eclectic group of unconventional candidates: repressed Isabel (Alicia Coca) from the church choir, who suffers under the thumb of her über-macho husband Mateo (Fidel Gómez); lusty hairstylist Soyla (Crissy Guerrero); and the exceedingly shy Gabby (Vaneza Mari Calderón), spotted in a Holy Roller chorus. Reluctantly at first, for reasons that become ever more clear as the one-act musical proceeds, family friend Mino (Geoffrey Rivas), an instrument salesman and repairer, teaches his mentees how to play instruments and sing. He advises them that as a women-only band, “You can’t just be good, you have to be better,” a common phenomenon for “minority” groups trying to succeed in a “majority” world.

Also in the cast is mariachi, model, drag and theater performer Yalitza “Yaya” Vasquez-Lopez as Tía Carmen, recalling that many years earlier, in Mexico, a few women had indeed performed mariachi music and subsequently were shut out of the field. Several of the actors play multiple smaller roles as well.

From left, Manhe Martínez, Crissy Guerrero, Vaneza Mari Calderón, Alicia Coca, Joseph Ruvalcava and Luis Bernal / Grettel Cortes

Federico’s (male) mariachi ensemble that fills out the musical score features Luis Bernal, Manhe Martínez, Oscar Rivas, Joseph Ruvalcava, and Juan Miguel Sossa Ropain. It’s a complicated show, and director José Luis Valenzuela pulls it together with an expertise honed over decades.

Though the time frame is specific, theatergoers may notice that the locale is left vague. Where does this story take place? L.A.? San Diego? Bakersfield? Albuquerque? El Paso? Denver? It probably doesn’t matter very much, just noting a curious choice.

It doesn’t come out in this musical—and perhaps it should have for its educational value—but many people, even some Mexicans, are surprised to learn the origin of the word “mariachi.” It is not an Indigenous term, as some might imagine. When the French occupied Mexico in the mid-19th century, French soldiers often found a Mexican woman to marry, or his French fiancée joined him in Mexico, and they hired local musicians to play for the wedding—a “mariage” in French. Thus mariachi became the very identity of Mexico itself. They learned to play boleros, waltzes, polkas, ranchera, huapango, popular songs. In time mariachi bands went on to play for all kinds of occasions, not just marriages. In American Mariachi they perform for a funeral—and even the corpse joins in the singing. That’s the power of this music!

In the show, the first paid gig the women do is for a quinceañera party, for twins Tracy and Stacy. Their dad says he’s hired them “to show my girls that women can do anything.” Yes, change does come.

Latino Theater Company’s creative team includes scenic designer Maureen E. Weiss, who employs, similar to the conceit in the company simultaneously running Ghost Waltz, a huge curtain that drops to reveal the set; lighting designer Pablo Santiago; sound designer John Zalewski; and costume designer Maria Catarina Copelli. The production stage manager is Alexa Wolfe, who is assisted by Martha Espinoza.

To summarize: Hey, the plot itself is not so original. It recapitulates the basic outline of undervalued member of society wants to succeed, is stymied by convention and prejudice, fights their way to acceptance, wins the day, changes minds and hearts, and the audience goes home happy. It’s precisely in the way this musical focuses on the mariachi profession, which itself brings smiles to every face, that the story soars and delights. There’s more than a touch of in-group specialness to the show in that a number of words and jokes in Spanish go untranslated, but nothing so serious to the plot that English speakers will miss much. For sheer delight, and for a comforting homecoming to familia, amor y tradición, even if these are not necessarily your own, I can’t recommend it highly enough.

American Mariachi plays through June 9 with performances on Thurs., Fri. and Sat. at 8 p.m. and Sun. at 4 p.m. The Los Angeles Theatre Center is located at 514 S. Spring St., Los Angeles 90013. Parking is available for $8 with box office validation at Los Angeles Garage Associate Parking structure, 545 S. Main St., between 5th and 6th Streets, just behind the theater. If you use Metro, the nearest stop is Pershing Square, two blocks west of LATC. For more information and to purchase tickets, call (213) 489-0994 or go to the company website.

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Eric A. Gordon
Eric A. Gordon

Eric A. Gordon, People’s World Cultural Editor, wrote a biography of radical American composer Marc Blitzstein and co-authored composer Earl Robinson’s autobiography. He has received numerous awards for his People's World writing from the International Labor Communications Association. He has translated all nine books of fiction by Manuel Tiago (pseudonym for Álvaro Cunhal) from Portuguese, available from International Publishers NY.