Interview with Organizers Lauryn Salazar and Jessie Vallejo

Published: May 7, 2013
By: Donna Armstrong
Transcribed by Helen Yuan

Mariachi de Uclatlán with director, Lauryn Salazar.
Photo: Jaw Lee, 2013.

Lauryn Salazar (Ph.D. Ethnomusicology ’11) and Jessie Vallejo (current ethnomusicology Ph.D student), the organizers of the May 26th Mariachi de Uclatlán 50th Anniversary Celebration, sat down with staff member Donna Armstrong to discuss the history of mariachi at UCLA, the mariachi movement, and their organizing efforts.  The event, scheduled for Sunday, May 26, 2013 from 1-7pm in Schoenberg Hall, includes a conference and a concert.


ARMSTRONG: Welcome Lauryn and Jessie. To begin, please tell us, what is Mariachi de Uclatlán, and why did you decide to organize this event?

SALAZAR: Mariachi de Uclatlán is the most current incarnation of student mariachi activity at UCLA. Mariachi de Uclatlán began in the early 1960s and has existed in one form or another to the present. Don Borcherdt started the class in 1961. He was a graduate student at the time, and later died in the field.  Don Borcherdt and Tim Harding [a professor from Cal State Los Angeles] (1) found Jesus Sanchez [a traditional mariachi musician from Zacoalco, Jalisco] (2) working in the fields, and they were able to get him to instruct them. The class became formal for the first time in 1964 [the course Music 45J/145J – Music and Dance of Mexico – was offered for the first time in 1964, taught by Don Borcherdt] (3). Robert Saxe’s story is really important during that period (4).  [Jesus Sanchez taught the class from 1968 through 1975] (5). Beginning in the mid-70s, students Dan Sheehy and Mark Fogelquist taught the class. People generally say that either Dan Sheehy or Mark Fogelquist started the class, but they don’t know that there’s an earlier history before that period. That’s something we’re really looking forward to sharing at our event. (Sheehy and Fogelquist are probably the two most prolific and well-known alumni to go on and do things with mariachi.)

In 2006, Mary Alfaro [an alumna of the Music Department], Leticia Soto [currently a Ph.D. student in ethnomusicology], and me, realized that we actually had enough advanced students within the Music of Mexico class, and we could take advantage of that. So, we started up the student group again.

Click here for a photo history of student mariachi activity at UCLA.

VALLEJO: There were a lot of ups and downs over the history of it.  Like any student group, when people graduate or when there wasn’t a grad student who knew the ins and outs of running things on the UCLA campus, it would kind of fizzle out, and later would resurge. So there have been a few different groups.

ARMSTRONG: I see. So what you’re saying is that this group has existed in one form or another for the last 50 years.

BOTH: Yes.

  Huasteco Conjunto: Art Gerst, Donn Borcherdt,
Robert Saxe. Courtesy UCLA Ethnomusicology
Archive, circa 1964.

ARMSTRONG: What are some ways that mariachi at UCLA has impacted our culture in Southern California and wider?

SALAZAR: Even before I applied to UCLA, the existence of this mariachi program made UCLA a major attraction for me, as someone who wanted to study mariachi.

VALLEJO: Me as well.

SALAZAR: Mariachi Uclatlán has definitely made its mark as a part of the history of mariachi in the United States. I would say the biggest impact of all has been on the academic mariachi movement.  The reason is that many of the alumni who were in Uclatlán in the 1960s and 1970s went on to found programs of their own throughout the world. Mark Fogelquist actually took Mariachi Uclatlán off campus in the late ‘70s. And in the ‘80s his group became a power mariachi group in California.

VALLEJO: They even have IMBD movie credits. /Laughs/

SALAZAR: Yes, movie credits. I mean they were a professional mariachi that rivaled some of the other groups. By the late 1980s, Fogelquist got a job teaching bilingual education in Wenatchee, Washington. While he was there he started a mariachi program which became one of the leading groups.

He founded a major festival! They’ve been recognized by the governors, the White House, all sorts of things up there. Mark really established himself as a pioneer in mariachi education for young people.

In the early 2000s, Mark was hired by the Chula Vista School District which, for the first time, had an all-Latino school board. They wanted a mariachi program, and they were willing to pay for it.  They were able to get him to leave Wenatchee, and so, down to San Diego he went. There, he founded Mariachi Chula Vista, which is part of the Chula Vista School District. Now they’re a power house! They’ll be performing at our event as well. They’re phenomenal!

uclatln - 1970s color_reduced  
Uclatlán (1970s). Photo: Courtesy Dan Sheehy  

VALLEJO: They’ve swept all the awards…

SALAZAR: Yes, they’ve won everything!


ARMSTRONG: Now when you say “swept all the awards” – what awards?

VALLEJO: Oh, at mariachi festivals and competitions.

ARMSTRONG: Tell us about these mariachi competitions – when and how did they develop?

SALAZAR: There’s a strong synergy between the academic movement and the festivals. In 1979, completely unrelated to the founding of the UCLA Mariachi in the 1960s, a husband/wife team in San Antonio, Texas founded the 1979 San Antonio Mariachi Festival. That started a movement. Once they did that, other places started having festivals, primarily as fundraisers, because the San Antonio festival was so successful. By the late 1980s or so, we see festivals like Tucson and Albuquerque having mariachi competitions. Well, they became widely popular and led to most festivals now having some sort of competition component.  By the late 1980s and 1990s, we see schools starting to fundraise, to be able to take their students to the festivals. Why? It is because the festivals are a place where you can find out the “who’s who,” the “what’s what,” and “who’s doing what,” in a three- to five-day period.  So, they’re incredibly important. A lot of the major headlining groups will showcase new repertoire at the festival.

When I started going to the mariachi festivals, around 1990, they were still mostly focused on individuals or on an individual in a semi-professional group. By 1995, the focus was very much on students, primarily elementary, high school, and college students.  So you would have the mariachi from this school, the mariachi from that school, and so on.  The conferences really became more about music education in that sense. And that shift happened in the mid 1990s.

ARMSTRONG: OK, there are two thoughts that come to my mind. Number one is: do kids perform better in school when they participate in a mariachi?  In other words, do they perform better when they have something – music – that reflects or teaches them about their culture? Number two is: do young people develop more goals for themselves as a result of their participation in a mariachi?

SALAZAR: I actually focused on this in my dissertation!

Over and over, for the last fifteen years or so, every mariachi instructor I’ve interviewed, plus parents and students, are showing that there is, by far, a strong correlation between academic success and participation in these programs. Something to keep in mind is that, other than Native Americans, Mexicans and Mexican Americans have the highest high school dropout rate in the nation, and a long record of low academic achievement. Part of the problem is that traditional retention methods don’t really work with this particular population, for whatever reason. And so, what happens is that mariachi programs help to make schools culturally relevant, and that’s really the biggest draw-in.


SALAZAR: His kids are now getting – we have one of his students in the Mariachi de Uclatlán – they’re getting into schools like UCLA and UC Irvine. And you know, when I first started interviewing parents, in 2003 and 2004, I found out that college counselors would tell these kids, “Oh, you’ll never get into a school like that – don’t even bother.

They said, “Don’t apply, you’ll never get in,” and you know, ten years later, there’s been a complete shift. These students are doing well. The programs that the Camperos run, the other programs that Jesus Guzman works with, and the MMAP program at San Fernando, all have similar situations: they are in school districts that are primarily Latino and that have been plagued with poor academic success and poor graduation rates. And again, when they set up a mariachi program, students who participate graduate: they do well; they do better.

ARMSTRONG: That’s amazing.

SALAZAR: …because in order to stay in the program, they have to keep their grades up. It’s an after-school program, so the kids have to go to school if they are going to rehearse with the mariachi in the afternoon.

VALLEJO: And it’s not even that they’re just graduating from high school, but some of them even become very successful in a mariachi career–like one of the girls that came to the World Music Summer Institute here–she’s playing with Mariachi Divas now.

SALAZAR: And they [the Mariachi Divas] won a Grammy.

VALLEJO: She went to the Grammy celebration and everything–not too long after high school.

SALAZAR: But even in Uclatlán, the UCLA mariachi, we have people like Sergio Alonso, who received a B.A. in ethnomusicology here, and is now the harpist for Los Camperos. More recently, Vanessa Sanchez – a B.A. student in ethnomusicology who played in Uclatlán and graduated in 2011 – is now playing with Reyna de Los Angeles, which is a major female mariachi group. Jazmin Morales, who is currently a senior ethnomusicology major at UCLA, played with Mariachi Mujer Dos Mil, another professional mariachi group. I’m sure there are plenty of others throughout the ages. Also, Leticia Soto [a Ph.D. student in ethnomusicology at UCLA] played with several mariachi groups including Las Adelitas.

VALLEJO: She also recorded with Mariachi Monumental. She sings a couple songs on it.


ARMSTRONG: So now let’s go back to the history. I heard you mention Los Camperos. Can you tell us something about that group? Could you also tell us about Jesus Guzman?

SALAZAR: Mariachi los Camperos de Nati Cano is probably – IS the longest-existing American mariachi group. They were officially founded in the late 1950s and by the 1960s, Nati Cano became their leader. Basically, what Nati did in the 1960s is, he founded a restaurant called La Fonda. And with it, his major innovation and contribution is the development of the mariachi dinner theater. It was widely successful and highly copied – you would have dinner and there would be a mariachi show. But the point was that the mariachi was the main attraction. Before then, the mariachi was kind of background music or just there to accompany a famous singer. Whereas with this – the dinner show – the mariachi was the main attraction. In addition to the mariachi playing, there are also dancers and things like that. With the success of La Fonda, everyone started copying their idea.


LAUREN SALAZAR: By about 1995, Jesus Guzman became the musical director of Los Camperos de Nati Cano. Jesus Guzman, like Nati, comes from a long line of mariachi musicians. He was born in Sonora and his family is originally from Jalisco. He is mariachi through and through; he grew up playing the stuff. He actually, when he came to the United States, played with a very important group called Los Galleros de Pedro Rey. That group was really important because Pedro Rey was like a mariachi god, and for a long time in the ‘70s, they were better than the Camperos.

ARMSTRONG: Please explain the connection between Nati Cano, Jesus Guzman, and UCLA.

  Jesús Guzmán  

SALAZAR: I believe the history is that in 1989, Nati and Jesus – we call him Chuy – were invited to teach the UCLA Music of Mexico class.  Steve Loza played an important role in inviting Nati Cano to teach a mariachi class at UCLA. What happened is that Mariachi Uclatlán went off-campus in the late ‘70s and became a professional group. Dan Sheehy started Mariachi Nuevo Uclatlán, and they were active, I think, from the late ‘70s until about 1982 or 1983. There was a Ph.D. student in anthropology named Steve Pearlman who kept the group alive, but his group didn’t have much of a profile. I’ve never been able to find him; no one seems to know what happened to him. He wrote the second dissertation about mariachi. [Before that, Mark Fogelquist wrote a master’s thesis on the son jalisciense (1975).] (6)

Throughout the ‘80s, there was very little mariachi activity at UCLA. [From 1980 to 1989, Steve Loza, who was first a graduate student and later became a faculty member, directed the Music of Mexico class. He reformatted the class to include not only the music of Mexico, but also Caribbean and South American styles, with a focus on salsa, and the group became known as "Uclatino." When Nati Cano was hired to direct the ensemble in 1989, it returned to the mariachi format.] (7). In the early ‘90s, when the mariachi format was reestablished, the class was run a little differently from the way it was run in the ‘60s and ‘70s.  As an official class in the newly departmentalized Ethnomusicology Department, my understanding is that the class had to be more open. It was open to anyone who wanted to enroll. And that’s the way it has continued until today – as more like a mariachi appreciation class. Anyone who wants to can sign up for the class, and you sing and get a little bit of basic instruction.  However, the needs of the more advanced students (because there are some hotshot mariachi players at UCLA) were not being met. The class was fun, but it wasn’t really challenging for those who wanted to do more.

VALLEJO: It wasn’t keeping them engaged or keeping them wanting to stay in.

SALAZAR: So, that’s when the three of us, in 2006, started Mariachi de Uclatlán. We had to change the name to include “de” (from) because now, unlike during the 1960s and ‘70s, student groups cannot use the name “UCLA.” But since we had a legacy, and we were able to show that we’re the mariachi from UCLA, then that’s how we were able to continue using the name. Also, I think Mark Fogelquist still has the copyright to Mariachi Uclatlán.

ARMSTRONG: Since the group started in a university, do they incorporate explanations into their performances? For example, if they’re performing music from a certain region of Mexico, do they give a verbal explanation about the region and the musical genre?

SALAZAR: In the 1960s, they actually did delve into more genres other than mariachi. They had the mariachi, they had a son jarocho and…

VALLEJO: …huasteco

SALAZAR: …and a huasteco group as a part of it. But again, it was more of a research lab in a lot of ways, in the 1960s. Today, and especially with the Music of Mexico class, it’s purely mariachi. But as an advanced academic mariachi group, we’re really able to retain and maintain a lot of traditional repertoire. As the director of the group, my belief is that, because we are in a university, it’s our responsibility to play some of the repertoire that doesn’t get played very often.

Mariachi de Uclatlán celebrate their win at the
Battle of the Mariachis Festival on May 21, 2010.

Also as a university group, and with access to someone like Jesus Guzman, we’re able to focus on arrangements that most amateur mariachi groups don’t play.  We’re trying to be like Los Camperos–in that “ritualistic” style. In a sense, in Uclatlán today, no one in the group gets paid; whatever money we make goes into a general fund to help us participate in competitions, festivals, things like that. So how do we keep people interested who could be earning money on the weekends, or who could be earning money, period? Well, for one thing, we have Jesus Guzman as our secret weapon, so to speak.

ARMSTRONG: As a coach?

SALAZAR: Yes. He doesn’t give private lessons. The only way to work with him (and he’s considered a mariachi god!) is either through the Music of Mexico class, which isn’t very rigorous, or though Uclatlán, because he donates his time to work with us – which is amazing – because he believes in what we’re trying to do. The second way we keep people interested is because of the repertoire that we play. Without going into the history of mariachi, there are many different types of groups that fit under this umbrella term called “mariachi.” So in L.A., there’s a really large number of what we call "chamba" groups, or "al talón" groups.  These are the groups that get together on the weekend just to play gigs and to make money, and that’s a certain aspect of the genre. The thing, though, with people who only do that is that it’s more about quantity, not necessarily quality – it’s being able to provide the song to the client.

VALLEJO: In the moment.

SALAZAR: Yes. So if it’s out of tune, for example, that’s not the point.

VALLEJO: There’s more improvisation.


VALLEJO: It’s rigorous in its own sense.

SALAZAR: Yes, but it’s a different style.

SALAZAR: With Uclatlán, and with our group, even in the ‘60s and ‘70s, the real attraction is being able to play in a more rigorous style. And we also focus on technique.  I feel, as an academic group, and since we’re all music students, we should be working on technique. We should be working on trying to raise the bar. And also, we’re the only current competition-ready group in California.

ARMSTRONG: In California?

SALAZAR: In California. We’re the only one. Stanford has a mariachi group, but they’re not rigorous.

ARMSTRONG: You mean college level?

VALLEJO: Yes, college level.

ARMSTRONG: Are you kidding me?

SALAZAR:  California is incredibly behind in terms of mariachi education.

ARMSTRONG: How can that be?

SALAZAR: Because there’s no funding; we don’t have the support.

ARMSTRONG: So there’s more funding in Arizona and New Mexico?

SALAZAR: And Texas.

VALLEJO: Oh, Texas is crazy. Music education is its own world in Texas. /Laughs/

SALAZAR: Oh, they’re phenomenal!

VALLEJO: They were in Chicago just recently. They’re amazing! Like scare-us-amazing!

SALAZAR: They kicked our butts in Albuquerque years ago. They’re phenomenal. But they have support.

VALLEJO: It’s being run like a competitive symphonic orchestra.

SALAZAR: Yes, they’re phenomenal. But not only that, some of the Texas universities – there’s the University of San Marcos – offer a Master’s degree in mariachi performance.  We’re talking on a completely different level.  So, for us in California, here at UCLA with this legacy, as students, and with the group being student-driven, and now with me as an alumna who is still teaching here, it’s something all of us wish that we had – some of the same resources that they have in Texas. That’s what we want – so we’re trying to create that for ourselves.

ARMSTRONG: That’s a lot of pressure!


ARMSTRONG: It’s shocking – I’m shocked.


ARMSTRONG: Are the high schools in California doing better than the colleges?

VALLEJO: Yes, oh yes.

SALAZAR: California has some really topnotch high school programs, and the problem is those students have nowhere to go for college. So they go to Arizona or they go to Texas if they want to continue with mariachi.


SALAZAR: On our own, as much as we can do as a student ensemble, we’re trying to mitigate that.

ARMSTRONG: Thank you for that information. Getting back to the conference, how is it coming? Are you taking RSVPs?

VALLEJO: Yes, we have about eighty people registered on EventBrite and we have close to, I think, forty or fifty people on Facebook, and so there might be some people overlapping, so we have close to one hundred people who are registered.

SALAZAR: This is a big deal. I don’t think people here realize how big this is in terms of the community, because UCLA right now is the only university in California that’s active at a competitive level in the context of this movement. So, what’s funny is, UCLA more-or-less launches this movement, but it’s been other states that have really developed it. And right now, definitely, Texas is at the forefront and the leader of this. But in our own way, we’re trying to continue.

We’re getting the word out and people are excited.  We’ve included Mark Fogelquist’s group, Mariachi Chula Vista – they’re going to perform – and also Chuy's group, the MMAP Program. They’re just as good. So there’s definitely a healthy rivalry, and what’s funny for us is that we’re thinking, “Oh God, we hope they don’t completely sound better than us!” /Laughs/

ARMSTRONG: Have you publicized in Ventura County?

SALAZAR: You mean Oxnard?

ARMSTRONG: Yes – in areas outside of Los Angeles.

SALAZAR: Yes.  We’re telling everyone.  And in fact, there’s a Mariachi Camarillo that comes and rehearses Monday nights, just so they can work with Chuy.

ARMSTRONG: One more question: is the repertoire handed down from many generations?

LAUREN SALAZAR: Yes. Very briefly, it’s traditional repertoire as arranged by Jesus Guzman.

ARMSTRONG: Everything?

SALAZAR: Yes. Everything we play was arranged by him. And, like I said, Chuy is a god. He’s a Grammy Award Winning Musical Director, and we’re grateful that he’s willing to donate his time and share his music with us. And so that’s another draw, that kind of gets people continuing to play with the group – the opportunity to play his arrangements – because he’s just a master.

VALLEJO: Miguel Pasillas, who’s a graduate from the ethnomusicology program, also does arrangements for the group.  He’ll arrange a couple of songs when we need something in a pinch. He’s interested in following in Chuy’s footsteps – being a musical director of a group. He’s been our musical director when Chuy’s not with us. He’ll arrange songs and Chuy will sometimes even give him feedback – coach him on arranging and composing. But we definitely play Chuy’s style.

SALAZAR: There are stylistic differences. I mean the basic melodies are the same. But the Camperos definitely have their own style.

VALLEJO: It’s kind of cool to have all these different styles, but his are definitely unique.

SALAZAR: The last thing I want to say is that the event is really our opportunity to get the UCLA story out there. Most people don’t know UCLA was the first university mariachi program in the world. Most people don’t realize all the people who went through the program and then made their mark on this movement. A lot people are surprised when they find out that someone came from our program. They say, “Oh they went to UCLA?”  David Kilpatrick, for example, graduated from our program. He was a professor at UC Santa Cruz, and when he retired, he came back to L.A. and founded his own mariachi programs in a bunch of different high schools in Echo Park and so on. A lot of people don’t know his story. He’ll be there at the conference.

ARMSTRONG: Are you recording the conference? Are you going to record individual stories, maybe?

SALAZAR: Yes, at the round table.

SALAZAR: It’s going to be a little informal. We’re going to have a bunch of people on stage and sort of pass around the microphone –

VALLEJO: But we’re also working with Aaron Bittel and Maureen Russell in the Archive to set up a type of online scrapbook. People can contribute to it before coming to the conference, or instead of coming to the conference. They can share stories or they can donate recordings or even put up flyers from other events and things like that. And so, we’re going to do as much as we can in a very short window of time. /Laughs/

SALAZAR: Yes, and I will say this: I was recently offered a [tenure-track] job, and they were actually really impressed with what’s been happening with Uclatlán. They were aware of the legacy of Uclatlán and the UCLA mariachi having made its mark. So the information is out there; it’s known, but there’s a lot of misinformation, and there are a lot of myths, and a lot of stories that we’re going to start clarifying.

ARMSTRONG: Thank you, Lauryn and Jessie, for your efforts.

SALAZAR: Thank you, Donna.

VALLEJO: Thank you, Donna.



  1. Loza, Steven, Barrio Rhythms: Mexican American Music in Los Angeles. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1993, p. 90.
  2. Loza, Steven, Barrio Rhythms: Mexican American Music in Los Angeles. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1993, p. 90.
  3. See the UCLA General Catalogue, 1964 – 1965. See also the webpage “Ensemble History: Music of Mexico Ensemble,” from “Worlds of Music at UCLA: Celebrating 50 Years of Ethnomusicology:”
  4. See the webpage “Special Guest: Dr. Robert Saxe and the Music of Mexico Ensemble, 1964,” from “From the Archives,” Ethnomusicology Review, vol. 17: 
  5. Information from Dianne Roberts, Personnel Analyst.
  6. Loza, Steven, Barrio Rhythms: Mexican American Music in Los Angeles. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1993, p. 90.
  7. See the webpage “Ensemble History: Music of Mexico Ensemble,” from “Worlds of Music at UCLA: Celebrating 50 Years of Ethnomusicology:”