"Amo Mexico," declares the petite young woman from beneath a broad-brimmed, sequin-trimmed sombrero. In her immaculate, two-piece charra costume aglimmer with miles of looping gold braid, a violin tucked neatly under one arm, Gabriela Maldonado is the very picture of a mariachi musician, that romantic breed of minstrel whose strolling ensembles have serenaded Mexicans through the thick and thin of nearly two centuries.
Gabriela may love Mexico, but she isn't from there. Her interest in the country developed back home in her native La Paz and, as part of a group known as Mariachi Los Reales de Bolivia, she has traveled to Guadalajara along with thousands of other aficionados from around the world for the annual International Mariachi Festival.
The September gathering, begun in 1994, represents a tangible coming of age for Mexico's most easily identifiable but frequently underrated popular music form. In the fledgling festival's host state of Jalisco, where mariachi is an institution, organizers are predicting that attendance will double this year as more than 100 national and international bands converge on Guadalajara, the country's second-largest city, for a week of mariachi immersion.
Drawn by their love for Mexican music, professionals as well as aspiring youth groups come to the festival to expand repetoires and polish techniques at workshops presided over by the experts. When necessary, they may even receive pointers on proper dress and grooming codes; long hair and earrings on male balladeers, for example, are strictly prohibidos.
In return for the free classes, lodging and food, these music makers perform daily at city-wide venues ranging from outdoor plazas restaurants, churches and rodeo-like charreadas to hospitals, schools and even prisons.
Mariachi fans can choose from dozens of different musical events during the gathering, but many come for the unique opportunity of seeing the world's finest professional ensembles from Mexico and the United States, los mariachis VIPs, who entertain throughout the week as the event's specially invited guests.
Their evening performances, before capacity crowds at the historic Degollado Theater, are high-spirited affairs showcasing stellar male and female bands in back-to-back and joint appearances, often with the lush accompaniment of Jalisco's philharmonic orchestra.
Festival-goers also can view mariachi-inspired art at the Regional Museum and take in the goings-on at the downtown headquarters, the Cabanas Cultural Institute, site of the workshops and a marketplace featuring handcrafted items designed for mariachi musicians and their cultural cousins, the charros or cowboys of western Mexico.
Mariachi has traveled a long, circuitous route to its current prominence as one of Mexico's most beloved musical traditions. While its origins remain hotly disputed to this day, scholars agree that its evolution began in the wake of the Spanish colonization of the early 1500s.
About that time, Franciscan friars introduced European musical styles and instruments like the violin, guitar and harp to the Coca Indians of western Mexico, and the cultural mix was set in motion, in particular around a town called Cocula, southwest of Guadalajara.
As early as 1695, string ensembles already carried the name mariachi, a word of Nahuatl origin associated with pleasure and music. Today, the word mariachi, in addition to describing the music itself, has come to stand for the entire band as well as its individual members.
Around the turn of the century, mariachi music made its tentative first appearances in the Mexican capital, introduced by traveling troubadours. By the '20s, a number of enterprising bands had established themselves in Mexico City and were cutting records there and in the United States.
Mariachi met motion pictures in the late 1920s, at the moment when the struggling street musicians were swapping their peasant garb for the showier trappings of the charro, a romantic figure associated with cattle wrangling and the sprawling haciendas of rural Jalisco.
The crooning cowboy image of the mariachi troubadours caught the imagination of filmmakers and was quickly transposed to the silver screen, where legendary singing stars like Pedro Infante and Jorge Negrete spread it to the republic's four corners.
Festival-goers who attend one of the performances at the Degollado Theater will witness some of the week's most inspired moments. The evening begins with the impeccably attired troubadours striding on stage to their own accompaniment, a buoyant mix of strings and brass that sweeps across the packed house in an exhilarating wave.
During the 3 1/2 -hour program, the bands showcase their own hits along with many of the standard works of the mariachi repertoire. There are romantic boleros, hymns to love won and lost; syncopated sones, the engaging folk songs from Jalisco; corridos, fiery war ballads from revolutionary times; rancheras, exhalations of rural life; lyrical huapangos from the coastal mountains and even marches and waltzes.
Other less formal settings provide backdrops for the dozens of free concerts scheduled throughout the week. One of the best is held in the colonial town of Tlaquepaque, a former vacation spot for the elite, located 20 minutes from downtown Guadalajara.
Recognized today for the quality and variety of its Mexican crafts, this compact, well-tended artisan center provides the ideal locale to enjoy live mariachi performances in combination with shopping and dining.
Back at the Cabanas Cultural Institute, the event's headquarters and site of ongoing music workshops, festival-goers can look in on classes and conferences, catch scheduled and impromptu mariachi performances and watch troubadours from around the world comparing notes.
A whole cottage industry is dedicated to supplying the mariachis, charros and folk dancers with eye-catching accouterments, which are on display at a daily marketplace in the institute's central, covered patio.
Tailors are on hand to measure musicians for tapered pants or calf-length skirts, fitted waistcoats and tooled boots. Glittering silver adornments, including belt buckles and buttons carved with pre-Hispanic and charro themes, also are on display, along with sombreros embroidered with glittering metallic threads, maguey plant fiber and even fur.
The International Mariachi Festival takes place in early September to coincide with Patriots' Month, a nationwide celebration. This year, the dates are Aug. 30 through Sept. 7.
During the weeklong event, the mariachi bands perform in dozens of locales, including restaurants, hotels, plazas, rodeo grounds and auditoriums throughout the city and in outlying areas such as Cocula, the birthplace of mariachi, and the craft towns of Tlaquepaque and Tonola. The headquarters at Cabanas Cultural Institute is also a hub of activity.
The festival attracts mariachi lovers worldwide and that lineup includes anthropologists and sociologists who give symposiums, professional and aspiring musicians and dancers who attend the workshops and perform around town, as well as aficionados of mariachi and charro cultures. Most are Mexican nationals, but each year they are joined by increasing numbers of foreign participants.
Mariachi bands hail from across Mexico and from Asia, Central and South America, Europe, the Caribbean, Canada and the United States. Among the VIP groups are the Mariachi Cobre, regulars at the Mexican pavilion at Disney World's EPCOT Center; America 2000, the band that accompanies singing sensation Luis Miguel on his world tours and hit records; well-known female ensembles like Las Perlitas Tapatias and Las Reynas de Los Angeles, and the much-venerated Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlan.
The gala mariachi performances, banquets and fiestas cost about $35 each. Several other presentations, including the Spectacular Mariachi concerts and the Informal Concerts at the Benito Juarez Auditorium, are about $5. Most other events are free. Festival packages are available through local tour operators. Check this out on the Internet at http://www.vianet.com.mx/ibari/canaco/mariachi.
Contact the Guadalajara Chamber of Commerce, Av. Vallarta 4095, Fracc. Camino Real, C.P. 45000, Guadalajara, Jalisco, Mexico; (800) 446-3942.