Mariachi songs tell stories of kings losing it all, big ranches, love and the journeys of many heroes and heroines. But these are more than mere tunes: This is the soundtrack to the lives of a special group of musicians.
When Acencion Inestroza made the decision to leave his hometown in 1989, he left behind family, country and music. He traveled for more than a decade until he again found music and love — this time as a mariachi, a musician schooled in an art form dating to 18th-century western Mexico.
In his native Nicaragua, Inestroza was a middle and high school arts and culture teacher. He was the music educator and the director of the school marching band. During that time, Inestroza believed that all children needed to be introduced to different disciplines. “The idea is for the student to find his or her gift. Some are going to be teachers or doctors, and the arts have to be part of that picture,” he says. Some of his students also became professional musicians.
Inestroza left Nicaragua because of political and social tensions in his country, starting a journey that took him to Atlanta, Cherokee and Hendersonville, where he’s currently based.
For 10 years, Inestroza worked as a carpenter and with his cousin at a car dealership, separated from music all the while. “It was a depressing time. I missed my family and my country,” he says. “The language was hard, and I was far from what I love to do.”
One day, his cousin invited him to a party. There, a group of young musicians was playing mariachi music — and they were out of tune. Inestroza talked to the musicians, tuned the instruments and joined the serenades. Later that night, he became part of the band.
‘All about happiness’
Mariachi music was not initially Inestroza’s strong suit. He grew up listening to traditional country music from Nicaragua and played piano in a salsa band. But it didn’t take him long before he was playing violin and trumpet, mariachi-style. “[The switch] from playing a tropical style of music was a big change,” he says, but “the mariachi interpretation is all about happiness.”
Inestroza reconnected to music but wasn’t convinced he was going to make a living from it. His wife, Acela Inestroza, had other ideas. They met through a band member, and after they were married, she let him know that he was a good musician, but he needed to make a decision. “She told me to pick up the violin and play, and I did,” says Inestroza, who now performs full time.
According to Inestroza, the word mariachi has been used since French colonization in Mexico, when the native musicians who entertained at parties and weddings adopted the French word for wedding — mariage. “It also means to dress for a party, in the Otomi language,” he adds. The Otomi people are an indigenous ethnic group in central Mexico.
In Mexico, mariachis (and their flashy outfits) are also known as charros, for the traditional horseman. The image of the modern mariachi was exported to the world during the golden age of the Mexican film industry, from the ’30s to the ’50s. Today, the mariachi is — after the taco — one of the most recognized symbols of Mexican culture.
“What I like about mariachi is the connection with the people,” says Inestroza. “When you put on the mariachi outfit, people talk to you. They want to take a picture with you.”
In Western North Carolina, mariachi bands are popular in quinceañeras, the celebration for the transition from childhood to adulthood for teenage Latinas. U.S. census data estimates about 256,000 Latino-identified people living in Buncombe County last year, and 114,000 in Henderson County, so there’s plenty of occasion for traditional musicians. “We go from table to table [and] people ask for their favorite songs and sing with us,” says Inestroza. That chance to relate is what makes his job special: “I’m satisfied at the end of the day.”
Guitarróns and galones
Today, at age 54, Inestroza leads the five-piece Mariachi Fiesta Tapatia. He uses every opportunity to make connections that lead to bookings for private events, like weddings and birthdays. “You have to find the job, talk to the customers,” he says. “That’s how we work.”
Inestroza has noticed that English speakers are starting to appreciate the mariachi sounds. “They love the music,” he says. But, “when I work with Americans, I use a [softer] volume. They have a sensitive ear for music.”
The life of the mariachi is not different from any other musician. It requires practicing the craft and working on the business side. But, when it comes to finding the traditional instruments like guitarrón and vihuela, and the traditional charro outfit, mariachi life can be a challenge. “I order mine from a tailor in Mexico,” Inestroza says of the special galones and bottoms that adorn the mariachi outfit.
Along with regular gigs, occasional music lessons and instrument repairs, Inestroza organizes the 10-member mariachi band (an expanded version of Mariachi Fiesta Tapatia for festivals and big events). The group is composed of musicians of different ages and backgrounds because he knows the importance of everyone having an opportunity to express their talents. “One of the violin players is 90 years old,” he says. “If someone has the desire to work, they can work with me.” Despite a long journey, Inestroza’s philosophy hasn’t changed much from when he was a teacher in Nicaragua.
One of his dreams is a community-based music education group where he can train the next generation of mariachis. “It can be our contribution as Latinos,” he says of his vision: a space where people can learn music, dance and art from different cultures.
“I want to do this with the community [and] involve as many people as possible,” he says. “People want to learn the traditional songs, and I’m grateful to have found this music.”
Learn more about Mariachi Fiesta Tapatia at facebook.com/choninB64