All in la Familia

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

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.

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



"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."

When Mariachi Vasquez first took the stage in 1987, at Anisa's elementary school, Raul and Sylvia played backup and the girls sang vocals. A few years later, Anisa and Julie picked up violins, Amanda learned trumpet, and Raul moved onto bass guitar, or guitarron. And when Raulito and Vincente arrived on the scene, they joined the band as well.

"Raulito blew his first note on the trumpet when he was eight months old," Raul says. "And Vincente was on stage when he was wearing diapers. We'd put him in the walker in a mariachi suit and give him maracas and claves. When I'd teach the older one a song, he'd stand next to him and mimic him. That's how he learned."

Raul booked the gigs, Sylvia sewed the costumes, the kids made the business cards, and Mariachi Vasquez took whatever jobs came along, whether it was a birthday party or a funeral. But even those were hard to come by.

"Tucson is like the mariachi capital of the United States," Raul says. "They teach it in elementary school, middle school and high schools. And everyone goes out and forms their own band. Then the pay scale goes way down, because these groups will play for donations or just food and drinks. That made it hard for us. And in the beginning, we only had like ten songs, so on two-hour jobs, we had to play some songs three times and the rest of them two times."

Their friends and family weren't much help. After Anisa completed third grade, Raul and Sylvia decided to pull their kids from public school, receive state certification and teach them at home between gigs and road trips. "People said, 'You're going to ruin them,'" Raul recalls. "But we didn't look at it that way. Nowadays, the dad to takes off to work, the mom takes off to work and the kids take off to school. And when they get home, the kids have soccer practice and homework. So when are they actually together? Two hours a day? At that rate, families don't make it. We're together all the time. I consider that a blessing. I'm not saying we get along 100 percent. But we understand we've got to work it out. And we do."

And one of the things they worked out early on was the wage. No matter how old or how talented, each member of Mariachi Vasquez receives five bucks an hour to spend as he or she wishes. Whatever is left over goes into the family pot, to purchase such things as the 28-foot motor home where they lived for four and a half years. Although it was an improvement over the cramped Tucson home, space was so tight that the restroom doubled as storage space. More than once the family woke to find soggy violins in the bathtub.

But the mobility allowed the band to go where the jobs were, including Flagstaff and Williams, Arizona, where the family spent summers performing for the Grand Canyon Railway. About six years ago, on the advice of two traveling musicians, the family decided to try Quebec, Canada, where they hoped to cash in during street fairs. They booked as many gigs as they could along the way and hit the road. One of their first stops was a Cinco de Mayo fiesta in Denver.

"We were booked for two hours but ended up playing for seven and a half," Raul says. "We had a ring of people around us five people deep. We were only supposed to play two songs and move along, but people were throwing tens and twenties at us and saying, 'We just got here.' It went on like that all day long."

Afterward, the family had a meeting.

"We decided we liked the greenery of Colorado," Raul says.

Another near miss.

The waitress with the enchilada plate grazes the waiter with the ice water and they both bump Raul, who swivels around them like a matador. But in the six years Mariachi Vasquez has played restaurants like this -- El Señor Sol in Golden -- they've survived closer calls. Once a waiter dropped a crab leg on Amanda's foot.  

The evening is so slow that a misplaced crab leg might liven things up. Customers stab at their burritos, pick at their chips and salsa and stare woodenly at the multicolored Corona banners dangling from the ceiling.

But Raul is not ready to concede defeat just yet, and he leads his mariachis -- in their matching electric-blue suits, satin bows and silver-studded pants -- between the tables. As the band approaches a party of five, a middle-aged blond woman winces, then contemplates her beans. Raul sizes her up a moment, then selects a special tune. And by the time his now-sixteen-year-old daughter, Julia, sings the final note of "I Fall to Pieces," rancheras style, the woman is near tears and the crowd erupts with applause.

"Straight from Mexico," Raul grins. "Patricia Cline."

Raul can explain the yowling.

But before he does, he must first explain the Mariachi Vasquez concept of practicing.

"We don't have time to practice," Raul says. "We're too busy playing. We work five to seven days a week. We play one song after another, and as soon as we leave one place, we pack up our instruments and hit another one. And when you wake up on Monday all sore from playing Friday, Saturday and Sunday, all you want to do is rest. And when you do have a day off, you have to do the laundry and cook. Sometimes, we open up the fridge and it's empty because we don't have time to go shopping. It's crazy. The only time we get to practice is between songs."

Which helps explains the yowling.

"When we started out, it didn't sound much like mariachi music," Raul admits. "Looking back, we can understand why people wanted us to stop."

"It was bad," Sylvia adds. "But you have to understand that these were just little kids doing this."

"They couldn't reach the valves on their trumpets because their hands were too small," Raul concurs. "And they needed both hands just to hold on to the horns. And sometimes, when the boys were little, they couldn't pronounce the words, so all you'd hear is 'Aaaaagghhh! La Bamba!'"

"But we never forced them to stand up and perform," Sylvia says. "We always let them wander in the audience and talk to people. We pretty much let them do whatever they wanted."

And they did.

In the early days, a Mariachi Vasquez performance was a cross between a talent show and America's Funniest Home Videos. If the boys weren't crawling through Raul's legs during a song, they were bouncing glow-in-the-dark superballs that they'd bought with their tips.

"One time we were playing and we couldn't find Vincente," Raul recalls. "Then all of a sudden, we see him at the table with a family, acting like he's known them all his life: 'Can you please pass the salsa.'"

"Another time, his pockets were so heavy with tips that his pants fell down," Sylvia adds.

"But people didn't care," Raul continues. "They were having a good time watching us play. No matter how we sounded, they still hired us. Sometimes they even requested us specifically."

Besides, the antics are part of the band's charm. And as the kids got older, the music reflected their personalities. Anisa is the quiet one, whose soft voice is particularly suited to ballads. Julie wears gumball-machine rings, writes many of the group's original songs and harmonizes beautifully with Anisa; her voice works well on country-Western songs. Amanda is the middle kid who handles the trumpet solos. Raulito, "the loudest of the loudest," plays with particular gusto, and Vincente, the budding entrepreneur, swivels his hips, winks at girls and performs a Mr. Microphone version of "Blue Moon."

"When I look at them," Raul says. "I see potential."

Last summer Mariachi Vasquez recorded Como la Ves?, a CD that includes original material, cover tunes like Selena's "Bidi Bidi Bom Bom" and classics such as "El Canto a la Madre." Although there's still the occasional yowl and bouncing superball, Raul takes it all in stride.

"We realize we've got a long way to go with our music," he says. "But they're still young. We'll get there."

"The Partridge family?"


"We are a lot closer than a normal family," Anisa explains. "We hang around together a lot more, and we're a lot tighter. It's weird when we're apart. And when we are apart, it's not for very long."

"We go to the mall with our mom and dad all the time," Julie adds. "We just like being with them. Some kids look at us like 'Oh. Here comes the Brady Bunch.'"  

"But you know what?" Anisa says. "We don't want to be the Brady Bunch. Or the Partridge family."

"Maybe the Selena movie," Vincente offers. "Because of all the stuff we went through, like getting stranded in the motor home."

"We were on our way back from Wyoming, got stranded and had to spend the night in a motel in our mariachi suits," Anisa says.

"But the most embarrassing thing is when you fall down when you're dancing," Vincente says.

"The most embarrassing thing is watching them fall down," Anisa says.

"Its kind of hard to play the trumpet and walk at the same time," Raulito chimes in. "You really need to stay still, because if you don't you'll get a bloody lip."

"But it's hard," Anisa says. "Most people don't realize that. Our typical day is like no typical day. Sometimes we get up early and some days we get up late. It depends on what we did the night before."

"The worst thing is when they tell us to go back to Mexico," Vincente says.

"It's mostly junior high schools," Julie explains. "It's bad enough for people to judge you by what you don't wear, like the right Nikes, but imagine walking down the hall in a full mariachi suit. You're going to get giggles and you're going to get stares."

"But then we get the conga line going, and they mellow out," Raulito says.

"There's a lot of misconceptions," Julie says. "If you play before a Mexican crowd, people will automatically assume you speak Spanish. And if you don't they say, 'Oh. You're not a real mariachi.'"

"But the good thing is that we really do love what we're doing," Anisa says.

"Everyone wants to know if our parents are forcing us to do this, and the answer is no," Julie says. "We're doing this because we want to. Our parents are always saying, 'Are you sure you want to do this?' It's never, 'You should do this.' Or 'You have to do this.'"

"If we wanted to leave it, we could leave it, but we don't want to," Anisa says.

"When we started, they told us, our parents told us, 'All we ask of you in this job is that when you play, you do the best you can,'" Julie says. "We mess up all the time, but when you're trying, that's all they look at. A lot of it is just having the right attitude."

"You could be playing like a frog, but as long as you're trying they appreciate it," Raulito says.

"None of us wants to be a lawyer, doctor or anything like that," Julie says. "Everyone wants to play music."

"I want to be a singer," Raulito says. "Or a football player. And then I can do the halftime show."

"We'd never split up," Anisa says. "It's either the full group or nothing."

"Eventually it might get to that point, but right now it would just be too weird," Julie says. "I'd probably be embarrassed to go up there without my mom and dad. I want to keep doing this as long as I can."

"The people are just amazing," Anisa says. "They sit there and cry sometimes because you play their favorite song. The people are definitely the best thing."

Nicki wasn't supposed to make it past age two, but she battled the muscle disease for thirteen years before she wore down. Toward the end, she'd seen Mariachi Vasquez perform at a restaurant; now she wanted to see them one last time. So one night, Raul took a call from Nicki's mom: "Could you play for her?"

"We didn't know what it was about," Raul recalls. "We just showed up. And that's when they told us."

When the mariachis arrived, Nicki was lying motionless in bed. But when the musicians began playing, she struggled to lift her head and smile. "We played like four songs -- everyone was crying -- and then the mom said, 'Could you please step outside.' I think she wants to die now,'" Raul recalls.

The mariachis left, and the family drew the curtains.

It's been a good night.

After the Patsy Cline song, everything clicked at Señor Sol. Vincente sold a few CDs, customers danced in the aisles during "Guantanamera," and no one yowled. When Vincente sang his bilingual version of "Blue Moon," the waitress with the enchiladas even sang along in Spanish.

But now it's break time, and Raul leads his family to a back booth in the bar, where the girls check their makeup and the boys guzzle glasses of ice water spiked with salt and lemon.  

"For the voice," Raul says, sucking a rind.

The Mariachi Vasquez band is living high these days. The family recently moved into their four-acre dream home in Arvada. The band is compiling new music for a CD and has been invited to a mariachi festival in Jalisco, Mexico, considered the birthplace of mariachi music. And now that Cinco de Mayo has kicked off their four-month busy season, the band seems poised for a breakout year.

"Everything has worked out so well," Sylvia says. "At times, we don't understand it. We really don't. We just know we're doing this. And knowing that makes us happy. All the glory goes to God. My life is fulfilled by everything we do. I'm not only a mother, but I'm also a musician, and I work with my family. This is what I'm supposed to be doing."

"You know," Raul says. "It's better than we imagined."

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