Music, culture, family celebrated alongside heartache in ‘American Mariachi’Mary Houlihanon September 21, 2021 at 12:00 am

Mariachi music is deeply rooted in the Mexican American community. It is a nostalgic bridge to the past, but it also remains a steadfast element today in the cultural traditions of families at baptisms, birthdays, weddings and funerals.

It is the music that playwright Jose Cruz Gonzalez grew up with; his parents were avid listeners. And it was the music that many years later he would learn to play, an experience that would inspire his play “American Mariachi,” which is making its Chicago debut at the Goodman Theatre in a co-production with the Dallas Theater Center and as part of the Chicago Latino Theater Alliance’s Destinos Festival.

It all started when Gonzalez noticed a student mariachi group performing on the campus of California State University Los Angeles, where he was a professor of theater arts for 30 years. “I discovered mariachi was a class in the music department and I approached the teacher, and for the next 10 years I took lessons,” he says.

Gonzalez is the first to admit he didn’t “have any kind of musical talent in his body” but he did have the desire to learn and became proficient on the guitarron, the large acoustic bass guitar that is a staple of mariachi groups. He also studied the culture of mariachi, how it is traditionally passed down from father to son and why it’s an important aspect of the Mexican American community and how it’s the soundtrack of many lives.

One day a fellow player mentioned to Gonzalez that she and her group had performed for an elderly woman on her birthday: “She described how when they played a certain song this woman would just come alive and sing along. This idea of music as memory stayed with me.”

“American Mariachi” would grow out of this idea. Set in the 1970s, the story revolves around a young woman Lucha (Tiffany Solano) caring for her mother, Amalia (Gigi Cervantes), who is suffering from dementia. One day, she plays an old record of mariachi songs which sparks her mother’s memory, which in turn inspires Lucha, against her father’s wishes, to create an all-female mariachi band — something unheard of in the ’70s. The cast also features Lucy Godinez, Amanda Raquel Martinez, Molly Hernandez, Gloria Vivica Benavides, Erendira Izguerra and Christopher Llewyn Ramirez.

“A big part of the story is about a young woman’s strength and determination to follow her dreams but it’s also about a family struggling with this disease and a married couple who have drifted apart,” says Gonzalez, whose own mother suffered from dementia.

Lucha (Tiffany Solano) from left, Boli (Lucy Godinez) and Amalia (Gigi Cervantes) are shown in a scene from “American Mariachi.”Liz Lauren

“I think Jose really captures the dynamics of a fractured family and weaves together all these narratives in a really beautiful, heartwarming and heartbreaking way,” says the play’s director Henry Godinez. “And then there’s the music which is just amazing.”

The play is infused with mariachi music and includes members of the Chicago group Sones de Mexico performing on stage along with the actors who learned instruments for their roles. Sones co-founder Victor Pichardo serves as music director. (Sones also partnered with the Goodman Theatre on the lovely musical play “Zulema,” which toured city parks in August.)

Mariachi dates to the 1800s in the countryside of various regions in western Mexico and evolved over time into what Pichardo calls “small orchestras” with a rhythm section, a horn section and a string section.

“Mariachi is happy music but also very passionate music. I think that is what appeals to the listener,” Pichardo says, adding, “I think ‘American Mariachi’ opens hearts and minds and doors for people who want to be part of this tradition.”

Godinez agrees that a goal of the show is to dispel the stereotypes of what mariachi is: “Through the show we come to realize that mariachi is not just something you hear in restaurants and drives you crazy. It actually has deep folkloric roots and has many different genres that weave into it including romantic boleros and polkas.”

“American Mariachi” was set to open at the Dallas Theatre Center in March 2020 but was cancelled because of the pandemic. Godinez says he hopes people feel “a real joy at being back in the theater.”

Adds Gonzalez: “I’m so happy it’s finally on stage with this cast of actors from Chicago and Dallas. This play is filled with such hope, and we really need that right now given all the challenges we’ve all faced in the past few years. It celebrates family, it celebrates life, it celebrates music, it celebrates a culture.”

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