Ladies first

Valerie Vargas, director of Mariachi Las Alteñas, leads the all-female mariachi group during a performance at Taqueria Mexico on the city's Southwest Side. (Photo by Mark Greenberg)

The members of the all-female Mariachi Las Alteñas are doing it for themselves

One by one, the 10 members of the mariachi ensemble return to the low-rising stage at the center of Estela's Mexican Restaurant. This Sunday morning - every Sunday morning - the popular West Side eatery bristles with the muted roar of conversation, its tables filled with families, nuclear and extended: thirty-something couples out for an early-morning date, cuatro generaciones together for a reunion; here a grandmother celebrates her birthday, over there another pareja falls in love all over again.

Gradually the low murmur gives way to the sound of violins and trumpets, accompanied by the low bass of the guitarrón, as the all-female Mariachi Las Alteñas launches into a potpourri of traditional tunes. One of the women, a tall Chicana, her hair pulled back in a tight trenza, confidently walks off the stage and into the audience, her full-bodied voice carrying throughout the room. She taps an elder on his shoulder, warmly, and he turns to her, looks up, spellbound.

When she finishes the stanza, she passes her mic to a second singer, whose "toro, toro, toroooo, toro relajo," elicits a round of gritos from the patrons. After she's done, a third woman hits a high "ayyyyyy," beginning "Los Laureles." Playfully, she sings "La perdición de los hombres son las benditas mujeres," to finish their first song.

Named in honor of the women who live in the heights of the Mexican state of Jalisco, Las Alteñas is one of only a handful of all-female mariachis nationwide, an anomaly in a genre dominated by men.

"A lot of people prefer to hear certain songs sung by women," says Valerie Vargas, the ensemble's director. "What we try to do is play songs by women and songs by men. We try to push ourselves to be at the same level as the guys. We take a lot of pride in being a female group."

Heather Newman, violinist, agrees, saying, "It's nice to be in a group where they don't say 'you play good - for a girl'."

"We've had the best of luck, with the best of members," Vargas gushes. "Ever since we started, we've had opportunities knocking at our door." Locally, they play five days a week at venues throughout the city, to audiences as appreciative as the Sunday morning crowd at Estela's. Furthermore, through an intense touring schedule they have become nationally known, playing at the prestigious Mariachi USA Festival in Los Angeles for two years running, and grabbing top honors at the 2004 Go Tejano Mariachi Competition in Houston last spring.

When Vargas formed the group a little more than two years ago, she contacted other women she knew were interested in playing and performing with an all-female troupe - a mix of veteran musicians and rising talents like Christine Ortiz, a recent Lanier High School graduate playing professionally for the first time.

For Ortiz, mariachi music provided her with a cultural connection. "I didn't know how to speak a word of Spanish!" she jokes today, but she sings as fluently and forcefully as anyone else in the group. Now, through her music, she says, "I feel I can express my feelings."

Like Ortiz, Newman found in mariachi music a sense of release missing from her classical training. "The music was so much more emotional to me," she recalls, "so I got into it." She took a leap of faith and moved from Minnesota to San Antonio to pursue her passion. Mariachi, she explains, enabled her to connect with people in a way she never was able to through classical music. (especially when they start calling out songs, Ortiz adds) "You can let your real self out," she says.

In their matching black charro outfits punctuated by a pleated white bow, the women are modern-day musical adelitas, and befitting their Mexican origins, they play a norteño compendium. Los Tigres del Norte's "Puerta Negra" segues into mariachi-swing with the Big-Band classic "In the Mood." The roving vocalist makes her way from table to table. This time she singles out a little boy sitting near the front, but he shyly turns away.

Next, Las Alteñas dedicates "Las Mañanitas" to Guadalupe, in celebration of her 85th birthday. Her family is all smiles as they sing along, and at the song's end she wipes tears of joy and surprise from her eyes.

Mariachi las Alteñas

2200 W. Martin
"What I love most about all this is the history and poetry about the music," Vargas reflects. "It's intriguing to me to think of how far back these songs go. I don't know of another type of music that goes back that deep.

"A lot of music dies out," she continues. "Mariachi music never dies out. It's not like rock songs that die out. It's more like classical music. We're learning about the past through the music." At the same time they are contributing to the genre's longevity, by composing versions of contemporary tunes which adapt and revitalize the music's traditional roots.

When they play "Can't Take My Eyes Off Of You," Newman, the group's only Anglo member, introduces the song by saying "mariachi music crosses all generations and cultures."

Angela Garcia solos during this piece, returning to the little boy in the orange shirt wearing his embarrassment and enjoyment all over his bubbly face. Next she targets a young couple sitting with the birthday group. Playfully, Garcia separates the guy from his girlfriend, moves between the two, trying in vain to get him to sing along. Finally, befuddled but reunited, he ekes out a meek "I love you, baby." His girlfriend approves, clutching him, and the audience rewards everyone - the performance, the singing, the spectacle of it all - with another round of applause.

At the performance's end, the entire group comes together and shouts, in unison, "sí, señor." The affirmation has become their motto, a resounding exclamation point that underlines the fact that these women have earned a solid place in the men's club called mariachi. •