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Women’s Mariachi Group Shakes Up Tradition

Smithsonian Folkways' newest recording artists are not only known for their Grammy-nominated mariachi music, they are role models for women succeeding in male-dominated fields.

Mariachi Reyna de Los Angeles, an all-female mariachi group based in California, recently released its fourth album--its first under the Smithsonian Folkways label--offering new arrangements of mariachi standards. With its ensemble of violins, guitar, guitarrón, vihuela, trumpets and harmonized voices, the band is known for its fresh take on the mariachi tradition.

Founded in 1994, the group also has had enormous impact in breaking new ground for women in music, shaking up a genre long centered on men.

The original mariachi sound emerged from western Mexico's small towns and ranches during the 19th century, adopting its now-familiar style in the 20th century. Traditionally, women have had to fight for their right to perform the music. Mariachi's history includes accounts of women playing as far back as the early 1900s, though only recently have early female groups received public acclaim.

In the 1970s, California schools started teaching mariachi classes as part of bilingual and multicultural education--a development that helped mariachi become an outlet for women to express their identity. Mariachi Reyna emerged from this movement.

María Luisa Fregoso, a third-generation mariachi musician who joined the group in 1995, believes Mariachi Reyna has opened doors. Now, she says, "All these little girls that wanted to play trumpet have the support they need. They saw the [female] trumpet players playing at a high level, like a professional level. ... All of a sudden, you saw little girls playing the guitarrón. ... It was amazing!"

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