In Louisiana, Cubans Play Mexican Ranchera Music

May 4, 2012

In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, Louisiana's Mexican population has grown substantially, and with it the demand for mariachi bands. Louisiana only has one mariachi band -- but they're not Mexican, they're Cuban.

It's a Friday night in Baton Rouge. At a local Mexican restaurant, Mariachi Jalisco plays "La Cucaracha" to a family as they dine on enchiladas, crunchy tacos, and fajitas. The waiter passes by to check on drinks, the band finishes their song, and the patrons clap.

When Mariachi Jalisco isn't playing over restaurant tables, the band plays at Mexican weddings, church masses, or parties. But the crowd at those events would expect a different set of songs than popular hits like "La Macarena" that get American restaurant patrons dancing in their chairs.

Years before Mariachi Jalisco showed up on the scene, the two bands that could be counted on as mariachis were in Houston and New Orleans -- but the New Orleans band was deported two years ago. Now Mariachi Jalisco is filling a void.

Veronica Montalvan, who moved from the Mexican state of Veracruz to Louisiana in 2000, says the band plays well, but she's angry about their limited repertoire.

"They need to learn more, because it's embarrassing," Montavlan said. "They know 'Volver Volver,' 'Las Mañanitas' and 'Mariachi Loco.' But we have other traditional Mexican songs that are absolutely necessary to know. And if they want to make a living doing this, then they have a moral and ethical obligation to learn them."

Montalvan says Mariachi Jalisco is performing the same handful of songs they were playing when they formed a year ago.

For the most part, the members of the band knew each other from Cuba. Yoismel Gonzales, the violinist, says they started playing mariachi in Cuba because there was a market for the music there.

"My whole life I wanted to play salsa. But, well, financially I started to play this music, and eventually I started to like it because the words of the music are so deep and you can use it for any occasion-parties, misas, you know like church, weddings, " Gonzales said. "It's interesting, and I started to really like it and finally I started to love it too."

There has been a trend in Cuba to play ranchera music. There are even mariachi festivals there.

Eider Martinez plays trumpet for the band. He says one of his favorite trumpet players is Mexican. He also says that playing Mexican music on the trumpet is difficult, and playing it requires constant study.

Mexicans here in Baton Rouge who have heard the band say their technique is good, but that they're missing the Mexican spark.

Alfonso Guevara from the state of Tamaulipas said,"They seem a little stiff, they're missing the heart, I'm just asking for a Mexican yell at least."

Still, some, like student Juan Rodriguez of Nuevo Leon, are just happy to have a local mariachi band to call on. "It's good music. These days all music mixes together," he said. 

Sometimes Mariachi Jalisco throws a salsa tune into their set.

Gonzales says people tell him he looks good in the charro suit. But by the end of a three-hour gig, he says he's ready to peel off the heavy wool costume.

"I always say I'm a Cuban dressed in a mariachi suit."

Saturday, May 5, Mariachi Jalisco will play in celebration of Cinco de Mayo at Jazz Fest in New Orleans where they will represent Cuba, Mexico, and Louisiana.