“Mariachi music, to Mexican people,” says Luisa, “It’s like an element of who they are, it’s part of us.” A violinist in Mariachi Reyna de Los Angeles, the first all-female mariachi band in the U.S., Luisa brings multiple experiences to her music, Mexican and American. Cindy, the band leader, grew up in upstate New York and heard mariachi for the first time when she arrived at UC Santa Cruz, at which instant she was hooked. Karla, a guitarrón player who appears in a Superfly t-shirt, adds her own perspective: when she first became interested in mariachi, remembers, “I was listening to like Pearl Jam and stuff like that.”
Such different routes to mariachi make up the stories in Compañeras, Elizabeth Massie and Matthew Buzzell’s 2006 documentary on Reyna. Founded in 1994 by José Hernández, the 12-member band expands the possibilities of the art form by definition, as men traditionally “commit” themselves to the music. A fifth generation mariachi musician, Hernández says, “I’ve never not thought of being a mariachi musician,” pointing proudly to the fact that six of eight brothers in his family took up the life. Still, he notes, not one of his sisters even considered it: “Mariachi is a man’s world,” he says.
Even when the musicians are women, expectations and structures remain male-dominated. The women who appear in Compañeras tell compelling stories of their passion for the music and their devotion to their instruments, rousing their audiences, male and female, all impressed by the form’s supple, melodramatic storytelling, and the Reyna members’ skills. As the movie reveals, the band has overcome numerous obstacles as well. At first, it was hard even to find members, in part because girls are less likely than boys to take up the trumpet or the guitarrón (both “very male instruments,” notes Karla). Carmen, who plays the vihuela, recalls, “I experienced sexism at a very early stage in mariachi, when my teacher told me that I couldn’t play guitarrón because it was too heavy and… it would bother my stomach and if I ever like, planned to have kids in the future…” She sighs, “Some bullshit excuse.”
Carmen’s refusal to be set back by such thinking aligns her with her fellow players: they must contend with ancient myths, misogyny, and fears. When the band formed in 1994, the dearth of female professional players brought on other concerns. Cindy — who had been playing with a male band professionally when she got a call from Hernández — says that during the first auditions, she was troubled. Most of the players, she says, “were still in high school and were playing in their high school band and Mariachi Reyna.” Still, she wanted the position, and was thrilled when she was asked to be the token white girl in the band. Footage of performances indicates that they’ve played in a variety of venues, from small dinner clubs to auditoriums and sports arenas. They rehearse dutifully, they schedule the rest of their lives to accommodate gigs. “There are no replacements,” says Cathy, a violinist who works nights as a nurse in a hospital. “Every person, every part of that group… it’s very important that you’re there.”
Cathy describes her long days, grabbing a couple of hours sleep after comes home from thee hospital and sends her kids off to school. Children, no surprise, occasion a whole other set of questions. While, as Karla submits, not every woman wants to have a family, those who do are caught up in gender role conventions, even as their long hours demonstrate their dedication to the group (“When you’re really, really close friends and you tell her your secrets and she tells you her secrets and her problems,” Paloma says, “Then you’re not just friends, you’re compañeras”) as well as to their art. If it’s inevitable that personalities clash, the film doesn’t delve into detail concerning arguments, but does show the changing dynamic of the group over the years, with new members auditioned and added and some dropping out or asked to leave.
That the women make less than half what male mariachi bands make is probably not surprising. But as it’s difficult to make a living as a female mariachi musician (and so they have other jobs, or depend on their husbands’ incomes to support their families), the film lets the problem present itself without much comment. Hernández sees the women as making different choices than men make; when Leticia returns from her brief maternity leave with her baby, duly looked after backstage and on the bus by other members, he’s mystified, wondering why she’s make such a choice.
A man, Hernández reasons, is more committed to the music and the life of the mariachi. Women, “they all have their dreams that don’t center around mariachi music.” He says that men see the music as “‘My job, I’ve got to provide for my family.’ And women, you know, they’re emotional, ‘I wanna get married, I’ve gotta have kids.’ They put it on the backburner, the music and their careers.” Right, you may be thinking, and the women don’t have wives at home, to care for their families so they can go out on the road and support them. The film doesn’t judge him, the women who quit, or the women who work for half the money earned by their male counterparts. Instead, the film celebrates what the women achieve, their beautiful music and the passion for it. Still, Compañeras reveals, for all the progress made in mariachi, as in other arts, women — and men — have more work to do.