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Mariachi group brings women to the front of the stage

Three female Mariachis
Anahli Jazhmin
Courtesy of Mariachi Femenil Detroit
The women of Mariachi Femenil Detroit. From left to right, Rita Ramirez, Camilla Cantu and Alida Solis. Not pictured are the group’s male members, Milo Cantu and Nico Martinez.";

If you close your eyes and picture a Mariachi band, you might see something like this -- sombreros, ornate black suits, stringed instruments -- all worn and played by mustachioed men.

A group called Mariachi Femenil Detroit is working hard to broaden that image and bring gender equality to the genre.

It's Saturday evening at the Plaza Del Sol -- a community and performing arts center in southwest Detroit.

On one side of the center’s main room, 19-year-old Camilla Cantu is busy twisting the tuning pegs on her guitar. They catch the glow of the room's fluorescent lights as she asks her brother Milo Cantu to play an “E” on his trumpet.

Once she's found the perfect pitch, Camilla situates herself on a folding chair in the center of the room's parquet dance floor. Vocalists Alida Solis and Rita Ramirez stand on either side of her, Milo waits nearby with his trumpet. On Camilla’s cue, she and the other two women begin to sing a sweet, mournful song called “Cucurrucucu Paloma” in seemingly effortless three-part harmony. 

Once they finish, there are just a few moments of rest before Camilla cues them for another song. For her, it’s just another night of rehearsal with the women’s mariachi group she founded.

Traditionally, Mariachi has been male a dominated genre.

"Not until recently, in the past decade and a half, you haven't seen major female mariachi groups. While that's starting to change, it hasn't really caught up in Detroit," Camilla says.

When Camilla was in middle school she was recruited to perform with a youth Mariachi ensemble in Detroit. She was the first girl to join the group in quite some time.

She still remembers her first performance.

"This one little girl came up to me and she was like, 'Oh my God, are you a mariachi?' I was like, 'Yeah, I am. Do you want to be a mariachi when you grow up?' She was like, 'Yeah, but that's for boys.'"

After Camilla joined the youth ensemble, her mother Maria Contreras-Cantu got involved too and eventually took over as manager.

"As her mother and chaperone, she was not about to just join this all male band without any supervision. So that's how I got pulled into the Mariachi scene," Maria said.

But before long, it started to feel like something was missing.

"Camillia asked the question, 'why are there no other female musicians -- where are the females?'

Camilla pushed to recruit more girls. When a couple girls joined but didn't stay long, nobody seemed interested in figuring out why.

As it became clear to her that female membership wasn't one of the group's priorities, she grew more and more frustrated. Then, one day, someone showed her videos of an all-female Mariachi group in New York called Mariachi Flor de Toloache.

Camilla calls this “the moment.”

“I was like, ‘I want that. I want that here in Detroit.’ But I was only 13 at the time. I didn't know how, but I knew one day that I wanted to take what [Mariachi Flor de Tolache] had done in New York and bring it here," she says.

Detroit’s Mariachi community didn't have that. Maria says what it did have were some definite ideas about who can do Mariachi and who can't. She says that caused a divide to form within the youth ensemble.

"I'll tell you exactly what it was. I believe it was females should be part of the band, they can be in the band, but they can't lead the band,” Maria says.

As time passed and things stayed the same, the mother and daughter decided to split from the youth ensemble and start the Mariachi band Camilla had envisioned – one that puts women up front.

Today, Maria is owner and manager of Mariachi Femenil Detroit, and Camilla is music director. Right now, two of the group’s five members are men, but the plan is that the band will eventually be all women.

Camilla also wants to make sure female members get a chance to do something other than sing. She’s training Alida and Rita to play instruments.

"If you're a woman and you can sing, you're kind of just stamped as a singer. Nobody's going to take that extra step to try to train you as a musician,” Camilla says. “I want [Alida and Rita] to be more than vocalists, because that's what they want for themselves."

Since the group first formed, Maria says attitudes toward female mariachis do seem to be changing in the community.

When Mariachi Femenil Detroit first started, she says a lot of people would call to hire them, only to change their minds once they found out the group was primarily female. But now Maria says people call and book them because they’re a women’s Mariachi band.

“Opinions have changed, and that's because of the musicians,” she says. “They have won the hearts. They have changed the minds of the people.”

For Camilla, that's a nice reward after a long, hard journey to the front of the stage.

"The inspiration on little girls' faces when they see us -- it makes it all worth it," she says.

With Cinco de Mayo, wedding season and summer festivals just around the corner, there will be plenty more performances and plenty more girls to inspire. 

Rebecca Kruth is the host of All Things Considered at Michigan Public. She also co-hosts Michigan Public's weekly language podcast That’s What They Say with English professor Anne Curzan.
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