Three years ago, when Doc Patino was appointed the mariachi master of Fiesta Mexicana, a longtime Myrtle Beach restaurant that prides itself on its tequila selection and guacamole mashed tableside, he didn’t have any kind of special outfit.
The TGI Friday’s manager had accidentally picked up the gig by commanding a weekly karaoke session: He’d come for tacos, not crooning work. But after Fiesta Mexicana’s owner heard Patino sing, he approached him: “Would you mind doing a show on Saturday nights?”
So Patino was put in charge of the house machine, cuing up “Las Mulas de Moreno” for homesick employees and “New York, New York” for homesick tourists. Between their turns holding the mic, he’d belt out ballads in the same untrained voice he’s been using to impress people since he was a boy in Guanajuato. But customers suggested his performance would be even more impressive if he was dressed in a traje de charro, the blingy riding costume riff that’s been a mariachi hallmark since the early 1900s.
The suit, which Patino recently bought in Mexico City, is embellished with silver spurs, which are affixed to his jacket and run down the outside of both pant legs. His matching sombrero is made of wool, instead of pricier rabbit felt, and the spurs are silver-plated, but the outfit does the trick. When Patino’s on the floor, employees and patrons alike feel – to use Patino’s tagline, printed on glossy promotional posters and proclaimed at random intervals – as though he’s “bringing Mexico closer!”
“We try to bring Mexico to people who can’t go there,” Patino, 51, says. “We try for them to feel they’re in a Mexican restaurant in Mexico.”
In the decades following the 1969 opening of Los Angeles’ legendary La Fonda dinner theater, where the house mariachi band was a bigger draw than the margaritas, Mexican restaurants across the U.S. hired guitarron strummers and trumpeters to keep their customers entertained. The practice faded in the current century, as the mariachi scene and restaurant business changed.
According to the musical genre’s chroniclers, part of what makes Mexican restaurants Mexican was lost in the process. But Patino is determined to bring it back.
Get yourself a mariachi band
“There are a lot of misconceptions about what a mariachi group really is and what it does,” says Dan Sheehy, curator emeritus of the Smithsonian Folkways Recordings label. Sheehy has been playing mariachi music since 1968, when the guitar player in his rhythm-and-blues band at the University of California Los Angeles left to join the group which would become War. Mariachi Uclatlan recruited the suddenly untethered Sheehy, and turned professional within a few years.
“But even it being a stereotype, people from many backgrounds like it,” he continues. “You have costumes; you have extroverted emotion and it’s a special photogenic kind of thing.”
Modern mariachi traces its pedigree back to rural string bands featuring instruments imported by Spanish colonizers, including harps and violins. The folk tradition was urbanized and standardized in the first part of the 20th century, with high-power Mexican radio stations blasting melodic expressions of national pride to much of Latin America: By the 1950s, Sheehy said, concert groups were fixtures of special occasions and political campaigns.
Musicians who emigrated to the U.S. could sometimes find similar chambas, or gigs, if they lived in communities big enough to celebrate weddings and quinceaneras on a regular basis. Generally, though, they got by “al palon,” says Russell Rodriguez, a professional guitarron player and assistant professor of music at the University of California Santa Cruz.
“Al talon is working on your heels: Hustling and doing piecework and getting paid by the song. And if it wasn’t a good weekend, you’d go off to the bars,” Rodriguez says.
Mariachi became a more in-demand restaurant amenity in the 1970s, partly because of the success of La Fonda, which ultimately inspired Linda Rondstadt to record a mariachi-style album and tour with a mariachi band. It was also helped along by the Chicano political movement: Mexican-Americans who had stopped paying attention to the form embraced it as a cultural touchstone, backing its inclusion in school curricula.
At that time, Sheehy says, Mexican restaurants “used to get the smallest group they could get and still call it mariachi.” American-born diners who weren’t yet fully accustomed to Mexican food – pioneering bottled salsa maker Pace didn’t come up with “mild” and “hot” versions of its condiment until 1981 – cottoned to the tunes, such as “Cielito Lindo.”
Restaurants scale back
Ay yi yi yi, “Cielito Lindo.”
As mariachi musicians with restaurants on their schedules quickly discovered, patrons always wanted to hear the same songs as they roamed from table to table. “If it’s not a heavy-duty Mexican audience, you tend to play the same songs over and over again,” Sheehy says. “In the South, like in Alabama, they used to do Orange Blossom Special.” But mostly, diners requested a side of “Cielito Lindo” with their combo platters.
“Quemado,” Sheehy says of the 136-year-old classic. “It’s the most burnt. But they ask for it, and we do it.”
And so it might have gone on, save for two huge developments in the 2000s which had nothing directly to do with restaurants.
First, the number of Mexican immigrants more than doubled between 1990 and 2000, creating vibrant Mexican communities in places which historically didn’t have significant Mexican populations, such as North Carolina, Georgia and Tennessee. Second, the Great Recession forced restaurant owners to slash luxuries from their operating budgets, including live music.
“In 2008, the mariachi business was cut in half,” Sheehy says. “Music is one of the most discretionary expenses.”
While the adjustment likely disappointed die-hard “Cielito Lindo” fans, musicians found there was more money on the growing celebration circuits in their adopted hometowns – and they didn’t have to bargain with cranky restaurant owners to claim it.
“Groups are working por telefono to go do private gigs,” Rodriguez says. “They establish what they want to charge, and the community knows.”
Still, Patino, who gave up his TGI Friday’s job to help manage Fiesta Mexicana, thinks the joy of mariachi music shouldn’t be confined to Mexican events. His show is by no stretch traditional: He’s apt to throw in an Elvis impersonation if the crowd looks receptive to it, and he’s experimented with singing in Russian, his second wife’s native language.
“My principle is I want everybody to have fun,” Patino says. “That doesn’t mean it’s only a Mexican party: It’s an everybody party.”
Now that mariachi is taught in hundreds of schools, Rodriguez says, the genre has become increasingly heterogeneous. Yet its cultural core remains intact.
“What’s kind of neat is you see all these people from different backgrounds under the same flag of Mexicanness,” he says, citing the Asian-American and African-American children who play in school mariachi bands. They’re often dressed in trajes de charro, just like Patino.