By Brian Sonia-Wallace
Each year at the end of summer, ¡Viva La Tradición! at the Ford celebrates a mariachi great. The show has grown so popular that this year it’s extending to two evenings for the first time. I had to find out more, so I spoke with producer, singer and Las Colibrí band-leader Susie García.
This year’s show is a tribute to Don Pepe Martínez, the world-renowned mariachi who passed away in 2014. Don Pepe was the director of the Jalisco, Mexico-based Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlán for 40 years of the group’s renowned 120-year history. “I saw him for the first time at the Hollywood Bowl when I was 14,” García tells me. “Later on in college, while I was at UCLA, I remember listening to a CD of Don Pepe while walking to class every day. And now he’s my father-in-law! José Martínez Jr., Don Pepe’s son, is my husband.”
Martínez Jr. played with Mariachi Vargas for 25 years, touring with his dad. García and Martínez Jr. met as colleagues and knew each other from the music scene for years before they got married and Martínez Jr. moved to Los Angeles to start his own group, Mariachi Angeles. The group will be returning to the Ford as part of ¡Viva La Tradición! after their debut concert here last year.
“José [Martínez Jr.] has intentionally cast Mariachi Angeles from the younger generation,” García tells me, “to teach them to carry on the tradition.”
This idea of handing down tradition is central to everything the couple does. García has a group of young women who meet at her house every Sunday, an all-female youth mariachi academy known as Las Jovencitas. It’s a point of pride for García that, though students sometimes make long journeys from opposite ends of the city to learn at the academy, she runs the group free for the families who participate, buying the girls uniforms and instruments. “It’s actually funded in part by this concert,” Susie laughs.
“My parents were huge mariachi fans,” García tells me, “and I remember them bringing back pictures from a mariachi festival and asking, ‘don’t you want to do this?’ I never thought I could, because I didn’t speak Spanish. I’m a suburban Chicano with Chicano parents!” García laughs. “But – I played the violin. I realized that you don’t have to speak the language perfectly to sing. And in the ‘90s, you were just starting to see women mariachis. It made me believe I could do it.”
García now runs Mariachi Las Colibrí, an all-female mariachi group that skips the classic mariachi attire and instead wears dresses in the tradition of Mexico’s Golden Age of cinema. “We also don’t have trumpets, so that mixes up the sound a little bit in an evening of mariachi music,” García tells me. “Suddenly you can hear the violins really clearly!”
García has brought in all of her collaborators for this event, with the goal of mixing things up even more, from famous soloist and Mariachi Vargas alum Steeven Sandoval to Ballet Folklorico Ollín. García says, “As far as I’m concerned, you can’t have a mariachi show without the dance that goes with the music, to help tell the story.” This year’s show will be directed not by García, who normally wears that mantle, but by none other than Don Pepe’s daughter Rosario Martínez, who works as a stage director in Mexico.
García sums it up: “It’s going to be a big old party up there onstage.”
¡Viva La Tradición! takes place at the Ford on September 8 and 9. For tickets and more details, click here.