Queen of Mariachis

Once a mariachi, always a mariachi, right? Don’t tell that to Cynthia Muñoz, the unassuming person behind the glorious 15-year run in Texas and the rest of the U.S. of Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlán. (For those unfamiliar with the world of charros and costumes, let’s put it simply: the five-generation Mariachi Vargas is the ultimate mariachi, the best today and the best in history). Even if she downplays her own importance and is always ready to praise Mariachi Vargas, Cynthia Muñoz (since 1992 the owner of Muñoz Public Relations in San Antonio) is a key component of Mariachi Vargas’ present and future success.

“I played mariachi guitar and violin in school and sang ranchera mass in church from an early age,” she said in her office, proudly showing us photos of a teenage, charro-costumed Cynthia with members of Mariachi Vargas. “The first day I heard mariachi, my whole body just turned warm, my hair stood up in my arm and I felt that music through my body and soul. I just loved the music instantly, and today, after 15 years of working with Mariachi Vargas, I still feel the same way.”

Since Muñoz took the helm, Mariachi Vargas have become a yearly staple all over Texas, most notably thanks to the Ford-sponsored Mariachi Vargas Extravaganza that includes a performance, vocal and instrumental competition for young, U.S.-based mariachi artists and workshops.

Since its foundation in 1897 by Gaspar Vargas and, especially, since Rubén Fuentes became director in 1944, Mariachi Vargas always set the standard of excellence for the genre, recording more than 50 albums and appearing in over 200 movies. The latest honor is the invitation received from the Houston Opera by Pepe Martínez (musical director since 1975) to write an unprecedented mariachi opera to be presented in the latter part of 2010. But Mariachi Vargas is more than just music, and Muñoz knows it.

“Our parents were slapped in the hands by their teachers for speaking Spanish in schools,” she remembers. “They used to tell us, ‘Well, we have to speak English first, make sure you got that one right... . We did take Spanish classes in schools, but mariachi was it for us. It was through mariachi that we learned Spanish and understood who we were, where we came from as Mexicans or Mexican-Americans.”

After graduating from college in 1988, Muñoz worked for three years at Sosa & Associates (now Bromley Communications) in San Antonio, where she helped organize mega-events by Luis Miguel, Rita Moreno and others, learning the ropes of Hispanic marketing and concert production. Once she opened her own business in 1992, she knew she wanted to reestablish the mariachi festivals she had grown up with, those unforgettable parties pioneered in the 60s and 70s by Josephine and Jesse Orta, early die-hard San Antonio mariachi fans.

But, even though cities like Los Angeles and Tucson had well-established mariachi festivals year after year, and Mariachi Vargas itself had been in the successful Canciones de mi padre album and tour with Linda Ronstadt in the 80s, in Texas the ranchera activity was sporadic. That was historically unfair, because it was in San Antonio that Mariachi Vargas had its first U.S. show in 1979.

“That was the first experiment we did,” said Martínez, on the phone from Mexico City. “After that, very little happened with us until we started working with Cynthia.”

After 13 annual sold-out or near-capacity festivals in different parts of Texas, the economic crisis took its toll on Ford, which pulled out as a sponsor. But the concerts go on with new sponsors like Goya Food Products and Fiesta Mart. The near-capacity Corpus Christi extravaganza last March shows that people just can’t get enough of Mariachi Vargas.

What makes mariachi music unlike any other in Texas is that it’s the only form of Latin music taught in schools and university levels, says Muñoz. And it’s the students, families and communities that are pushing the programs.

Pepe Martínez seems to relish the association as much as Muñoz.

“Now they know Mariachi Vargas all over Texas and the U.S.,” he says. “And I want to make this clear: all of this, including the Houston Opera invitation, happened thanks to Cynthia Muñoz. She’s been our Guardian Angel in Texas.”

I ask Pepe if it is okay, then, to call her ‘La mariachi.’

“Oh, definitely,” he laughs. “She occupies a very special place in the heart of Mariachi Vargas. Without a doubt, she’s the Queen of Mariachi Vargas in Texas.”

Enrique Lopetegui