All in la Familia

Mariachi Vasquez is living the Mexican-American dream.

In the days of eating catsup and bread for dinner, Raul and Sylvia Vasquez dreamed of this. The Suburban with the TV, VCR and Nintendo set; the four-acre country home with the swimming pool, pasture and pet burro; the people, the applause and the conga line.

This was thirteen years ago, when he was a freelance mechanic and she was a freelance seamstress and they were lucky to bring home $500 a month. The water would get shut off, the electricity would get shut off, the phone would get shut off and it was all they could do to feed their kids. But he had his trumpet, she had her guitar and they still remembered the songs. So each night, in their cramped home in South Tucson, they sat on their lumpy couch and sang.

Their friends were against it, their families were against it and the odds were against it, but Raul and Sylvia believed. One day, they would be mariachis.

Blowing their horn: Raul and Sylvia Vasquez and their five mariachis.
Mark A. Manger
Blowing their horn: Raul and Sylvia Vasquez and their five mariachis.
Mark A. Manger


"Where do we set up?" Raul asked the manager.

"Wherever."

"Wherever?"

"Yeah," the manager said. "Wherever. Just walk around and play. You know. Like mariachis."

Raul looked at Sylvia, who looked at their kids, who looked around the Denver Safeway for a stage, a platform, a Cinco de Mayo poster, a display of tortilla chips, anything.

"Just walk around and play."

So Raul, Sylvia and the kids hauled their sombreros, costumes, violins, trumpets and guitars to the frozen-foods section, where they proceeded to serenade packages of freeze-dried peas and pints of Ben and Jerry's. A man strolled by with a loaf of bread and raised an eyebrow. A woman pushed a cart down the aisle and smiled weakly. Another woman hesitated a moment, walked up to the band and said, "Excuse me. Can I get some ice cream?'"

"Sure," Raul replied. "Would you like some milk?"


If you want to start at the beginning, Raul says, start with his great-grandfather, his grandfather and his grandfather's brother.

"Because they're the ones who started it," he says. "They went around by wagon to the mining towns and villages of southern Arizona and northern Mexico playing mariachi music. So I guess you could say it's in our blood."

Unless you count his dad.

"They tried to get him on violin, but he ended up being more of a fighter than a musician," Raul says. "He broke the violin over someone's head. He got kicked out of the fourth grade for that."

But Raul stuck with both school and music. And by the time he completed the fourth grade, he was already playing the trumpet. And he played so well that he joined a teenage mariachi band three years later, which performed in Washington, D.C., during President Richard Nixon's second inauguration celebration. One summer, Raul even played the casinos in Reno. "I was only thirteen, and I was already making $300 a week," he says. "More than my dad."

Even so, when Raul graduated from high school, his dad, who worked at a golf course, delivered the news: "Time to get a real job." So Raul worked in a copper mine hauling steel beams and busting rocks with a twenty-pound sledgehammer. But always, there was the music. Four hundred feet underground, he practiced trumpet arrangements in his head. On weekends, he picked up his horn and played weddings, fiestas and family gatherings. "Mariachi music is just so heartfelt," Raul says. "A lot of the songs are about love lost. Some are about love won. Some are just about love. And sometimes it's about the ranches and the animals. Once I got into it, I really liked it."

It wasn't the same for Sylvia. Not initially. Although she, too, grew up around the music, which is characterized by festive horns, trumpets and violins, she was more interested in playing Bob Dylan than mariachi. And although her mother had taught her to play the vihuela acoustic guitar, in high school she decided to plug into an amp and form a band with a girlfriend who played bongos. "That's what I wanted to do," Sylvia says, "Rock and roll. I never expected to be playing mariachi music."

And she never expected to fall for a trumpet-playing mariachi with a souped-up '73 Plymouth Duster, either. But she did. Four years after she and Raul married, they had their first child, Anisa. Two years later, they had Julie. And two years after that, they had Amanda. By that time, Raul was tired of spending more time in the mine than with his kids, so he became an auto mechanic. But then the shop closed. "It was like, 'What I should do now?'" Raul recalls. "We really prayed about it. And the answer came back: 'Whatever you want.' And what I really wanted to do was mariachi music."

So he polished his trumpet, and Sylvia tuned her guitar, and when they sat down to play, Anisa, who was four, and Julie, who was two, joined in on vocals. Sylvia's mom, who also dreamed of being a musician, had taught the toddlers the ropes. "We have a tape recording of them singing when they were little," Sylvia says. "They hit the keys and everything. And with vibrato."

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