It’s a Wednesday night in February at Valentina’s Restaurant in Santa Fe, and the women of Mariachi Buenaventura, New Mexico’s only all-female mariachi band, are getting ready to play. Dressed in matching black outfits with embroidered pink bows at their throats, the members tune their instruments in the restaurant’s foyer, near the hostess stand. Joanna Alvarez-Reyes, the band’s founder, fiddles with the vihuela (which looks like a tiny guitar), Venessa Rivera plucks a few notes on the guitarrón (a deep-bodied acoustic bass), and Dianna Fernandez and Anezyka Guzman rub rosin on the bows of their violins.
About 20 people are eating at Valentina’s, enjoying sopapillas doused in honey and micheladas in goblets as big as their heads, but as soon as Mariachi Buenaventura begins to play, the crowd quiets. The band solicits requests, and during “Besame Mucho,” half the restaurant sings along. Then, an elderly woman — who happens to be named Valentina — asks for “El Rey.” Mariachi Buenaventura wanders over to her table, and as the first phrases of the song play, she begins to cry. Not just because it’s a melancholy song and because Alvarez-Reyes sings it with gravitas, but because it’s Valentina’s 80th birthday, and they’re playing just for her. When the song finishes, she breaks out in a smile and everyone in the restaurant claps loud and long.
Mariachi music is ubiquitous in Santa Fe, and much of the southwest in general, but the ladies of Mariachi Buenaventura garner attention wherever they go. The group plays at weddings, funerals, quinceañeras, and baptisms, and beside death beds. During Santa Fe’s annual Fiesta, which takes place during the first week of September and commemorates Don Diego De Vargas’ 1692 conquest of Santa Fe, mariachi is everywhere, in spaces both private and public: outside the cathedral and on the city’s plaza, in businesses, schools, and private homes. Mariachi enhances celebration and mourning alike and serves to mark the passage of time, imbuing it with texture and significance. As Guzman put it, “I read a quote, I think it was on Facebook, that musicians are just therapists that you can party with. When we play, we’re involved in these people’s lives.”
“Musicians are just therapists that you can party with.”
All-women mariachi bands are hardly unheard of — in New York, there’s Mariachi Flor de Toloache, who have been nominated for a Latin Grammy and have performed on TV. Cities like Los Angeles and Phoenix have several all-female bands, which makes sense, given that the populations in those metropolitan areas exceed that of the entire state of New Mexico. Mariachi Buenaventura are aware of other girls-only groups (and are big fans of Mariachi Flor de Toloache), but are rightly proud of being unique in their home state.
“It’s weird,” said Dianna Fernandez, who plays violin. “Mariachi is from Mexico, but in Chihuahua, the state where I’m from, you’ll hear mariachi, but it’s not something everyone’s listening to all the time. The difference here in New Mexico is that it’s crazy; everyone wants mariachi, even if they don’t speak a word of Spanish.”
Some of the 10 band members have lived in New Mexico all their lives, while others hail from other parts of the U.S. and Mexico. While they all grew up with at least some awareness of mariachi music, many of them didn’t develop a passion for it until high school.
Alvarez-Reyes founded the band in 2005 when she was 21, after taking a mariachi class at Santa Fe’s Capital High School. At first, Mariachi Buenaventura included a couple of guys, because it was difficult to find female mariachis, particularly trumpet and guitarrón players.
“In New Mexico, everyone wants mariachi, even if they don’t speak a word of Spanish.”
“I heard from my friend Joe that there was a girl out in Pecos who played guitarrón, and he said, ‘all I know is that she works at the Dairy Queen,’” Alvarez-Reyes said. “So I go home and I’m looking in the phone book for all of the Dairy Queens, and I called and asked for Venessa, and she thought we doing a prank. I had to meet her at her parents’ house because she was still in high school.”
“Yeah, I thought it was a joke,” Rivera said of Alvarez-Reyes’ initial contact. “I’d just moved here from Utah. I’m Hispanic, but my parents never spoke Spanish. I played stand-up bass in orchestra, but I had no idea that you could take mariachi as a class, or that it was even a profession. When Joanna called, I told her I couldn’t read music very well, I don’t have very good technique, but she said, ‘that’s OK, we’ll help you.’”
The majority of Mariachi Buenaventura’s members are self-taught. Alvarez-Reyes recalled that her music teacher in high school had little interest in teaching her guitar, so she took one of his guitar books home and taught herself. She’s a commanding vocalist, but never had any formal training, other than practicing with the band. “I’ve just always liked to sing,” she said and shrugged, which belies her vocal range and precision.
When the band meets to practice, they pause frequently to explain things to one another, count beats in a measure, or when all else fails, Google the lyrics or the sheet music on their iPhones. During band practice, the atmosphere is loud and familial. Conversation flows between Spanish and English, and the women talk over one another. But Alvarez-Reyes in particular is good at keeping everyone on track, despite adorable distractions, like the four kids present at one practice, who are the children of band members. At 20, Citlaly Fernandez is the youngest member of the group, and as such, takes breaks to check Snapchat and floats the idea of ordering pizza. “We’re like sisters,” Dianna Fernandez said of the group. “We fight and everything, but that’s part of it, because we’re family.”
Even for the band members with formal musical training, like Guzman, playing mariachi in the band offers an experience distinct from other musical endeavors. Guzman began playing violin when she was 8 years old, and was involved in music around Santa Fe because her adopted mother helped start the Santa Fe Youth Symphony Association. “It’s funny, for years, I’d go to orchestra concerts I would fall asleep, every single time,” Guzman said. “It’s not that I didn’t enjoy the music, it’s just…It didn’t keep me awake. The first time Pam, my adopted mom, brought me to the mariachi extravaganza, I was sitting on the edge of the seat ’cause I just couldn’t believe that they could all sing and all play instruments. What captured me was the passion of the music. It captured me because I thought, that song sounded just like my heart was breaking.”
Being women in a largely male-dominated field is the first thing many onlookers notice about Mariachi Buenaventura, and it’s vital to the band, too. At first, many of their gigs came about because the novelty of an all-female group appealed to clients, and Alvarez-Reyes said that’s still the reason they get certain jobs. Dianna Fernandez said, “People who don’t know us are always surprised to see our group because women don’t have a history of doing this the way men do. But we give mariachi a different flavor.”
“When I was young, I thought that only boys played the trumpet, and that’s a stereotype people sometimes have at gigs. They don’t expect much from a female trumpet player. We’re playing songs that are usually sung by men, but we interpret them as women,” said Citatly Fernandez. This is expressed through impeccably designed matching outfits, flowers in their hair, dance moves to accompany the music, and in their musical interpretations of the songs, most of which are Mariachi Buenaventura’s own arrangements of mariachi standards, though the group has written a few original songs.
“Mariachi is something that they’ve grown up with, that they know, that they’re familiar with, that they love. It’s part of them.”
Rivera remembered that when she began to study the guitarrón in high school, two boys who were learning guitarrón alongside her resented that she was better than they were. “I’ve developed my own style,” Rivera said. “I’m self-taught in singing, in speaking Spanish, even the gritos. That’s another thing that sometimes offends the men,” she laughed.
Guzman and Alvarez-Reyes make their entire living from playing in the band, while other members, like Jaqueline Fernandez, and Rivera work either part- or full-time to supplement income from gigs. They’re up for whatever, (even playing for a doll, an actual gig they accepted) as long as the customer is paying. “There have been gigs where we’re basically just there to be part of the scenery,” Alvarez-Reyes said. “I’ve noticed it mostly at parties at like, big, rich houses. We’re not there to actually engage with the people or entertain them, we’re kinda just there to — ”
“– provide ambiance,” Guzman interjected. Alvarez-Reyes agreed. They’ll do these sorts of jobs for the money, but find it boring. To stay entertained at gigs like this, the band will sometimes play “the game,” during which band members take turns picking a song they don’t know very well, look it up on the Internet, and then experiment with it. “They can never tell,” Guzman said.
In performing mariachi, the question of authenticity comes up often. Guzman, who is naturally blonde, said that “sometimes, at conferences, other musicians will come up to me and be like, ‘well, you’re white though. How did you start this?’ Or there’s been gigs where on purpose people come up to me and speak to me in Spanish. And I know that they’re doing it just to see.” Usually, Guzman answers their questions in Spanish and that’s the end of the line of questioning.
A few years ago when the group was in Madrid, they played for tips on the city’s plazas during the day. “It was going really well until this one guy came up to us and asked where in Mexico we were from,” said Alvarez-Reyes. “And we’re like, ‘Well, we’re from New Mexico.’ He’s like, ‘New Mexico, where is that?’ And I said, ‘New Mexico is actually part of the United States.’ He got so mad, he called us impostors and then marched off. After that, since three of the girls with us were from Chihuahua, we all just started saying we were from there, too.”
In their hometown, Santa Feans are duly proud of their world-famous Mariachi Buenaventura. When the women play on the plaza’s bandstand during the summertime, or in the procession from St. Francis Cathedral to Rosario Cemetery during Fiesta, they are an essential and vibrant part of life in their community, both in recalling traditions that are centuries old, and in helping to ensure that mariachi remains vital well into the 21st century.
“Locals are always glad to hear mariachi, ” Alvarez-Reyes said. “If they see us dressed in our suits carrying our instruments, they’ll follow us, ask us where we’re going to play. Mariachi is something that they’ve grown up with, that they know, that they’re familiar with, that they love. It’s part of them.”