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Mariachi Artists Try to Overcome Racism

As immigrants are under attack throughout the Southwest, the Las Cruces International Mariachi Conference is seen by many as a symbol of defiance and ethnic pride.
 
 
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The cold temperatures did not stop the audience or the players. Gathered in the central plaza of this historic town, several hundred people got together this past weekend to listen to the new talents of Mariachi music, made in the USA.

They came from all over the Southwest and Mexico, fans and musicians ranging from a few months of age to well in their retirement years. Many couldn’t speak or understand Spanish; some couldn’t speak English, either. But then, the only language that mattered was the music.

The Las Cruces International Mariachi Conference has been going strong for 17 years, but the mood this year was different. At a time when immigrants are under attack throughout the Southwest, with states and the GOP-controlled House of Representatives threatening to pass harsh new anti-immigrant measures inspired by Arizona’s SB 1070, many saw the festival as a symbol of defiance and ethnic pride.

“We are all proud to be Americans, but we can’t deny that the influence of the Mexican culture is all over this land, and we are proud of it, too,’’ said Orlando Antonio Jimenez, a Mariachi singer who was serving as the master of ceremonies, as he stayed warm beneath a striped zarape, or blanket, in the red, green and white of the Mexican flag.

The same spirit flowed from all the performers—mainly students— and their parents, many of whom traveled from the neighboring states of Texas and Arizona.

“I love Mariachi music,’’ said 13-year-old Ali Pizarro, a student at Pistor Middle School in Tucson, who plays vihuela, guitar and guitarron—a bass instrument that looks like a guitar but is much larger and is  strapped over the shoulders, allowing the musician to follow the band. “I would like to play Mariachi when I grow old, but I also want to study mechanical engineering, just in case,” he added.

Ali’s parents watched happily as their son and 12 other Pistor students performed. But later, when asked about the Arizona’s anti-immigration climate, they expressed concern about what might happen if federal courts decide to fully implement SB 1070, which makes it a state crime to be an undocumented person, and HB 2281, which would ban all “ethnic studies” from Arizona schools. Both laws, which were enacted earlier this year, are the subjects of lawsuits.

If HB 2281 takes effect, Mariachi classes, which are very popular in Arizona, could be among the casualties. “This is an excellent program,” said Ali’s mother, Xochitl Pizarro. “It helps the kids to develop not just academically and artistically, but also to learn about their roots.”

“It seems that, not only would they like to deport all the Mexicans, they also don’t want that our children, who are U.S. citizens, learn about who we really are,” she added. Almost half of Arizona high school students are of Mexican descent.

“From Michigan to Michoacán [Mexico], this is our country,” said Raul Aguirre, a Mexican who has lived in the U.S. all but three of his 55 years. Noting that for centuries Mexicans—and now Latinos from other countries—have contributed to the well-being of the United States, Aguirre, owner of his own company, Rea Media Group, warned that the Arizona laws are “short-sighted” and likely to backfire if they are eventually implemented.

“We are on a collision course,” Aguirre said. “We [Latinos] are the largest and youngest minority group in the country, and they [Anglo-Saxons] are the oldest. We are the largest and fastest-growing market in the country, and they are in decline. If they threw us out, who is going to take care of them?” he added with a big laugh, pointing out that the future of Social Security, among other things, depends on the financial support of younger generations.

“We would like to see our politicians recognize [that] we are filling the gaps,” said Maek Ruiz, a music teacher from Arizona, noting that Mexicans in the Southwest—and Latinos as a whole—are an essential element in just about every aspect of the development of the U.S. society. “They can’t just pat us on the back when they need us and then kick us out when it is politically convenient.”

“We are defenders and promoters of [cultural] diversity,” said the festival’s executive director, Phyllis Franzoy. “I don’t know where all this is going to take us, but [I] know that every one that is involved gets a better understanding of cultural diversity and humanity,” she added, already thinking of the 18th annual Mariachi festival—which, of course, will be held in Mesilla.

 
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