Tess Garcia has always been a whip-smart reader of Man Repeller and she even once created one of the most show-stopping intern applications we’ve ever seen. So, for “Whatever You Want” week, we asked what she most wanted to see on MR. Below, Tess tells the story behind Mariachi Femenil, an all-femme mariachi group based in Detroit. Yes, it’s a guide to starting a band, but, really, it’s also a guide to doing anything you’ve never done before—and finding purpose along the way.
I first discovered female mariachi band Mariachi Femenil as a sophomore in college. I’d been living in Detroit that semester, taking classes on urban development and racial justice while interning at the parks and rec department for the city’s Southwest neighborhood, a majority-Latinx cultural hub where the band happened to be based. I don’t remember much about the event where I stumbled upon them other than the fact that their performance nearly brought me to tears. As a Latina myself, watching a trio of women meld together the traditional sounds of brass, strings, and pridefully-belted Spanish lyrics tugged at something I didn’t even know I was already feeling.
When I explain that sensation to Camilla-Isabella Cantu, a 20-year-old college student and the founder and director of Mariachi Femenil, she understands immediately. “For people who are not aware of the gender gap in mariachi music, or who are unaware of how mariachis are represented in the media, it’s like, ‘Oh, that’s so cool, female mariachis. Let me get a picture,’” she tells me over a Zoom call. “But for the Latinx community, people who are aware of this gender gap and have maybe even accepted themselves that mariachi’s just not something that women do, it blows their minds.” Cantu’s path toward dismantling sexism in mariachi has been anything but linear, but she manages to boil it down for me. Here’s how Mariachi Femenil became a revolutionary musical force in the city of Detroit.
Step 1: Embrace Tradition, Then Reject It
“At first I was very much against mariachi because, to me, it was very ancient music. It was something my parents and grandparents listened to,” Cantu explains. But then a mariachi musician visited her 8th grade class. “A couple weeks later, I came around and he started teaching me guitar.” Those guitar lessons led to an invitation to join a local youth mariachi band. Cantu played with them until she was 16, when she began to feel isolated as the only female member. Her experience of sexism in the group came to a head when she tried to correct a sheet music error during rehearsals. “I told our music director, ‘Hey, this is actually off, this piece of music isn’t right,’” she recalls. “Everyone fought me on that. Two minutes later, another guy pointed out the same mistake and the leader of the group was like, ‘Yeah, this is kind of wrong. Just ignore this part of the music.’”
Cantu decided to quit the band, but held on to her love for mariachi. Then, the following summer, she was offered the chance to perform with Mariachi Flor de Toloache, New York City’s world-renowned female mariachi ensemble, at a Frida Kahlo exhibition at the New York Botanical Gardens. “I played a song with them and I fell in love,” she says. “It had become completely normalized to me that I always played with men. I had never even thought of what it would be like if I played with women: What does that look like? What does that feel like? What does that portray for other people?” That’s when the idea for Mariachi Femenil was born: “I was like, ‘We’re going to do this. We’re going to bring this to Detroit.’”
Step 2: Try (and Almost Fail) to Start Your Own Band
Cantu started the process of forming her own band in August 2016 by setting up an open call for women to play music together in a safe, informal setting. “I thought it was going to be cool,” she recounts. “We used the local community center and I promoted it on Facebook.” But only two women, a mother and her daughter, showed up to the community center that day. “I was super disappointed,” Cantu says. “But I was like, ‘Okay, let me see what we can do.’” Today, Alida Càzares, the mother who came to that first session, is one of the lead singers for Mariachi Femenil.
During the past four years, that initial two-person duo has grown into an ensemble of four female musicians, in which Cantu performs vocals alongside the other members, occasionally picking up a vihuela or guitarrón. The first song Mariachi Femenil performed together was “De Colores,” a classic Mexican folk ballad that Cantu says is the bread and butter of mariachi. The song took on a special significance for her when she learned more about its history. “A month or two after we started playing as a band, I found out that ‘De Colores’ was actually one of the songs that they sang during César Chávez’s movement for farmworkers’ rights,” she explains. “It was a song they used to sing in the fields when they were protesting. That made it so much more important to me.” (Her bandmates eventually grew so sick of the song that they now refuse to play it, she adds with a laugh.)
Step 3: Wear the Pants
Though female mariachis have existed in some capacity for over a century, there’s something particularly special about Mariachi Femenil’s approach to the art form. For one, they wear pants. Historically, a woman mariachi is expected to wear a long, full skirt with her blazer and moño, or traditional embroidered bow fastened to the shirt collar. “I think it’s very respectable, but it’s just not the image I had for the group,” Cantu says. I ask her how she managed to get ahold of authentic mariachi pants that properly fit the female body, and she erupts with laughter: “Oh, girl, we had to get them made. I’m telling you, they don’t exist.” Each member of Mariachi Femenil bought her own black pants, while Cantu got ahold of the gala, or metal adornments used as trim. A friend of Cantu’s attached the gala to the sides of each pair, and the rest, as they say, is history. When I first saw Mariachi Femenil perform, their androgynous costuming was the first thing that made me fall in love with them, all tailored pleats and crisp shirts that made their dark purple moños shine.
Step 4: Ponerse las Pilas — Get It Together
Cantu and her bandmates practice one to three times a week for three to four hours at a time, depending on members’ schedules and whether they have a gig coming up. Each of the band members has other significant responsibilities—they’re all mothers or students—so they often juggle hectic schedules. Last year, when a member of Mariachi Femenil had a baby, the group relocated practices to her home without a second thought. Another member even brings her infant son to rehearsals, where Cantu says he occasionally messes with their instruments. Perhaps as valuable as the time they spend playing music together is the way the women bond over their shared experiences. “I always talk to the other college student during practice,” Cantu says. “Like, ‘It’s finals week, I’m dying, how are you?’”
Step 5: Show Up for Your People
Over the past several months, gig opportunities have been sparse for the group because of the pandemic. Mariachi Femenil has used the time to shift their focus to the fight for Black lives. Most recently, they performed a set at a Black Lives Matter demonstration in their neighborhood of Southwest Detroit. For Cantu, the experience has given her a renewed sense of purpose—she’s just become involved with Detroit-based education organizing network 482Forward and will be assigned to one of their specialized committees in about a week. “People hire mariachis as a token of how important an event is, whether it’s a baby shower, a wedding, anything. I feel like that was extremely appropriate,” she tells me. “This was a big thing happening. This was Southwest Detroit showing solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement and all the organizers in Detroit who are protesting daily.”
For Cantu, the experience has given her a renewed sense of purpose—she’s just become involved with Detroit’s City Council and will be assigned to a committee in about a week. “The big thing right now is abolishing the police presence in schools and finding different solutions to the underfunding and school closures happening right now in Detroit,” she says. “I’m on it.”
Want to see and hear Mariachi Femenil in all of their glory? Check out this video of them performing for fellow women in the streets of their neighborhood, or this intimate look at an at-home rehearsal, where even Cantu’s brother, a fellow mariachi, makes the cut.
Photography by Cydni Elledge