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Shattering Stereotypes

While the words 'You've Come a Long Way, Baby' might be considered sexist by some, it is a fact that they have been a rallying cry for feminine gender-forward strides since being used as a marketing anthem to induce women to smoke a certain brand of cigarettes back in the 1960's. The 'Virginia Slims' advertising often featured mythic tales of ladies, as far back as the early 20th century, who were punished by men for secretly lighting up. This was an ultimately futile marketing attempt to equate this 'discrimination' with denying them the right to vote.

Actually the strides made by women in mariachi would appear to be a far more valid use of the tobacco company's slogan.

The apparent metaphor for breaking though the glass ceiling in the arts is definitely more relevant. Achievements in film would appear to be the most obvious example, but the shift in what was often described as 'Mexico's macho music' has been happening for a lot longer and is a paradigm that deserves to be examined in greater detail.

Leonor Xochitl Perez, Ph.D., is the San Diego Symphony's Artistic Projects Manager. Ashley Gardner , the Director of the Women's Museum of California, was fascinated when Senora Perez contacted her about hosting an exhibition that she and her colleagues (Laura Sobrino and Nancy Munoz) had curated that focused on the role of women in the "intensely male-dominated world of Mariachi music."

Ms. Gardner, when interviewed by George Varga of the San Diego Union Tribune in October of 2013, said that "I was surprised to learn that there were women in Mariachi. Like lots of people, my vision of Mariachi had been of three to five male Mariachi musicians serenading customers in a Mexican restaurant,. That was the extent of my knowledge. So, to learn that, as early as 1903, a woman figured out how to follow her passion and play in a Mariachi group, was amazing. To see the evolution and know that there are now over 30 women's Mariachi groups in the United States is also amazing."

The initial contact led to the Museum hosting the first public exhibition of the "meticulously researched and compiled Viva el Mariachi Femenil: 1903-2013 which ran until November 3rd."

The exhibit, which will be touring the country in 2014 and beyond, is the creation of Senora Perez. She earned her doctorate at UCLA and went on to become the program manager for Harvard University's Center of Excellence in Minority Health and Health Disparities.

"I started playing violin in a mixed-gender mariachi group when I was 13 at Griffith Junior High in East L.A. There were many forces that aligned in the 1970's that opened up the opportunity for Mariachi to be taught in (American) public schools, There were maybe 12 of us in the group and (unexpectedly) there were more girls than boys."

"The earliest documentation of a woman Mariachi musician was Rosa Quirino in 1903. She was 12 when she started playing violin and singing in an otherwise all-male group in La Escondida, Nayarit, Mexico."

The lack of formal documentation made it difficult to trace these roots but "fortunately there was a scholar in Mexico who came across her story and interviewed people who knew her, as well as her family. We have only one photo of her and we have a replication of that photo in our exhibit."

The music was male dominated (it was usually passed down aurally from father to son) but Perez tells us that "the men who worked with Quirino said that she was very passionate about the performance and transmission of this cultural expression that we know as Mariachi. But she also had to set boundaries with men. She told them:'we're here to work---and please be aware that I carry a gun!' It was an effective strategy, according to the interviews with her daughter and the men who performed with her."

Rosa Quirino was the precursor for three prominent all-female groups that toured internationally in the 1940's and 50's: Adela y Su Mariachi Muchachas,Mariachi Feminil Estrellas de Mexico, and Mariachi Las Coronelas.

Less than a week after Senor Varga's article appeared in San Diego, Miriam Jordan penned another for an unlikely source of mariachi information, The Wall Street Journal. In addition to a carefully researched history of the genre, vetted by Senora Perez, current all-female groups including the Latin Grammy-nominated Trio Ellas, the Grammy Award-winning (and six time nominated) Mariachi Divas de Cindy Shea, and Mariachi Mujer 2000, under the direction of Laura Sobrino, were profiled.

The title of Ms. Jordan's article was quite appropriate as she has meticulously detailed the feminine movement that, as she described it, is 'Taking the Machismo Out of Mariachi."

'You've Come Long Way Baby' indeed!