Upon opening The Magic of the Mariachi La Magia del Mariachi, you’ll first notice a pastel portrait of a young woman playing a violin, her face at once serene and serious. Underneath, a dedication reads: “...to all mariachi musicians … whose music transcends all boundaries.” This collection of ekphrastic poetry, too, transcends boundaries of language, of culture, and of art itself. As a collaborative project by a husband and wife team, poet Steven Schneider and artist Reefka Schneider have created a vital and timely book that celebrates the romance of Mariachi music while exploring the history and socio-political significance of this form of expression. The book consists of twenty-four portraits of Mariachi musicians and accompanying poems, both in English and their Spanish translation by Edna Ochoa, in forms ranging from sestina to villanelle. Each page is filled with the magic and the allure of this musical form that originated in Mexico and today has become internationally beloved, particularly in the United States.
Mariachis, often hired to perform at weddings, quinceneras, and serenades, have a certain romance about them. Both poet and artist illustrate this in many of the pages in The Magic of the Mariachi La Magia del Mariachi. The poem “Mariachi Juvenil,” for instance, tells the story of “A handsome, young, mariachi singer dressed in green” who is “enraptured by the lyrics / of a love song that he’s singing.” Though the boy is “only eighteen years old” he “has tasted the sweetness and sadness of love.” The speaker casts music in the backdrop with sound imagery, completing the portrait as the boy sings, “His voice floats above / the vibrato of violins and trumpets...rising on the wings of his song.” In the poem “The Sound of Romance,” a young woman “holds her guitar with great poise and grace / in this night of the full moon” while the “men in the jardin swoon.”
Though these portraits and poems celebrate the image of the mariachi as one steeped in the tones of passion and romance, they also dig deeper into the historical and cultural significance of the art form. “The Magic Vihuela” illustrates the complex layers of violence and beauty aptly. The poem opens “on a starry summer night” with a vihuela player “strumming the chords” of his instrument “on the plaza in a small town in Jalisco.” The poet paints a serene picture on the surface with an image of a hummingbird that “hovers nearby / enchanted by the rich and deep sounds of music / that scents the air with honeysuckle.” The poem shifts with the speaker’s confession that the music transforms “the heaviness of our souls / into the lightness of laughter.” The poem goes on to describe the evening, the music, the lovers dancing and kissing in the streets. The last few lines, though, show the music to be a beautiful rebellion against the Mexico’s violent and troubled history:
Where the music penetrates the atmosphere
An enduring protest against the Conquest
Against the Church with its stern liturgical chords
Against the spilling of the blood of the indigenas.
“Watching la Guitarronera,” a skillfully written sestina, explores the issue of narco violence in Mexico today through the eyes of a vihuela player as he remembers playing “in the plaza on the starlit nights / in the innocent summer” of his youth, “the vastness of the world” in the hands of him and his love. By the fifth stanza, though, the poem turns:
Not everyone, though, loved the mariachis.
The cartels who trafficked drugs through the night
Destroyed the gift of love in our hands,
The music of our lives in Jalisco.
The narcos seduced many of our youth
Who turned a deaf ear to the guitarron.
The speaker and his beloved flee Mexico to “el Norte” where they continue to play their love songs that remind them of home. There’s a strain of both optimism and sadness here – both poet and artist do a fine job of illustrating the complexity, both the shadow and the light, of mariachi music. The opening poem of the collection, “Waiting to Play,” depicts a young woman, a dreamer (a child of an undocumented immigrant who was affected by the DREAM Act), in the moments before her performance with Mariachi Aztlan. The poem, written in this young woman’s voice, opens with a stark revelation: “You cannot tell from the way I am dressed ... how I have lived in the shadows for so many years / trapped between two countries.” The young woman tells her backstory, how she grew up in the border town of Reynosa, Mexico and “crossed the Rio for good” after her fifteenth birthday to live “in a colonia in the Rio Grande Valley” in poverty. The poem ends, hinting at the young woman’s uncertain future:
Tonight I will play with Mariachi Aztlan
At the university.
I do not know what the future will hold for me,
But the curtain is about to lift.
I am no longer waiting to play.
Like this young woman, many of the subjects of the portraits in this book are Mariacheras, or female mariachis. In fact, women take center stage in this collection. In this sense, the book celebrates the evolution of mariachi music, which was once entirely dominated by men. Many of the young women here find their identity, power, and voice through this traditional musical form. The poem “Mariachi Femenil Brass” celebrates the pioneering women who “took command of their lives / through their instruments of change,” the women “whose flames burned so brightly they could not be / snuffed out.” Perhaps the boldest poem in the book, though, is “Soldadera with Violin.” This poem, written in the voice of a young woman from Zapata, Texas, depicts her dreams of fighting for a better life for herself through her music. The granddaughter of a revolutionary with “dreams of la justicia in a world where the poor grow only poorer” who practices her violin to “forget about the poverty... the wall / they have built” to keep her cousins out of the United States. She boldly declares:
I don’t care what they say:
Young women my age still must choose
Between la cocina and la calle.
I choose neither.
I play my violin with the guts of Zapata in my blood.
The poem ends with a grito of empowerment:
Viva el Mariachi!
Viva la Revolucion!
The Magic of the Mariachi, La Magia del Mariachi, builds cultural, linguistic and artistic bridges. It celebrates the romantic past of this art form, holds up a mirror to the present day border issues, and looks optimistically towards the future. This important addition to American letters illustrates the beauty and the complexity of mariachi music and its contribution to our national identity. With such stunning portraits and beautiful poetry, it’s impossible not to fall in love with both the light and the shadow of the music and the people expertly captured in this collection.
Katherine Hoerth is the author of two poetry books. Her most recent collection, Goddess Wears Cowboy Boots (Lamar University Literary Press, 2014) won the Helen C. Smith Prize from the Texas Institute of Letters. Her work has been included in journals such as Poetry South, Pleiades, and Mezzo Cammin: A Journal of Formal Poetry by Women. She teaches literature and creative writing at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley. Her third poetry collection, The Lost Chronicles of Slue Foot Sue, will be released in early 2017 from Lamar University Literary Press.