Lauryn Salazar is leaving her mark on Mariachi, Disney-Pixar and now, your mail.
Lauryn Salazar was earning her doctorate in ethnomusicology when she first heard claims that mariachi music came to the U.S. through post-World War II waves of Hispanic immigration.
“Something about that didn't seem accurate to me,” Salazar said.
Salazar's grandfather had played mariachi in an Arizona mining town during the 1930s and her great grandfather also had been a mariachi musician.
“I went looking and sure enough, I discovered a recording from 1904 in Los Angeles. This predated the first commercial recordings of mariachi music in Mexico from 1908.”
Salazar loved the tradition of mariachi, but never saw the genre as a legitimate career or field of study. So instead, she trained in ballet, voice, piano and violin growing up.
“When I got to college, I discovered there was a field called ethnomusicology,” Salazar said. “That changed everything.”
Salazar realized the mysteries of mariachi could provide a career after all.
She is now an associate professor of musicology at Texas Tech University's J.T. & Margaret Talkington College of Visual & Performing Arts' School of Music. Hired in 2013, Salazar was tasked with developing a robust Mariachi program.
She has done that and more.
Not only is she the director of Mariachi Los Matadores as well as a full-time associate professor, but she also tours with the multi-Grammy award-winning group “Mariachi Divas de Cindy Shea.”
Most recognizable of her accomplishments though is the Golden Globe and two-time Academy Award-winning film, Disney-Pixar's “Coco.”
The 2017 animated movie tells the story of 12-year-old Miguel who is transported to the land of the dead. There, he must seek the help of his deceased relatives to return to the living and reverse his family's ban on music.
According to Salazar, “Coco” was one of the first Pixar films to use cultural advisors in the creative process, and that's where she came in.
“Pixar asked if I would come and give a presentation on the culture and history of mariachi,” Salazar said. “They didn't give me much information beyond that. I didn't even know what the movie would be. I just knew it was the new, unnamed Lee Unkrich movie.”
Unkrich previously directed favorites such as “Toy Story,” “Monsters, Inc.” and “Finding Nemo.”
“Unkrich told me it was important to them to do this new movie as authentically as possible. Representation clearly mattered to him,” Salazar said.
According to Unkrich, “Coco” was a learning process from the start, but the film hit its stride once they brought in the cultural advisors. In addition to Salazar, the group included nationally syndicated comic, Lalo Alcaraz, and Latino playwright, Octavio Solis.
It was the first time outsiders were allowed into the studio's creative process.
Since “Coco,” Disney-Pixar has continued using cultural advisors in their films.
“I am so proud to be part of that,” Salazar said. “Hopefully other media companies will follow suit and move away from deferring to stereotypes.”
Like Miguel in the story, the film opened many new doors for Salazar as well.
“Some time after the film was released, the United States Postal Service (USPS) sent me an email out of the blue. They had seen my work and asked if I'd be willing to serve as a consultant on a new line of stamps they were designing.”
The vision was to highlight five mariachi instruments and their players as a symbol of the cultural contribution the music has made to the U.S.
“I thought the idea was a wonderful chance to highlight the mariachi tradition on a large scale,” Salazar said. “When we think of USPS stamps, they're snapshots of iconic American culture. So, to have mariachi included in this tradition is a big moment for Latin American cultures.”
Salazar worked with a contracted artist to ensure the instruments, musicians and even the musicians' posture were portrayed accurately.
“One of my doctoral students here in the School of Music, Adolfo Estrada, helped by letting me photograph him and his guitar,” Salazar said. “We used that as a reference and had the artist note where his hands were placed, how he held the instrument and even details of the traje.”
While Salazar has certainly enjoyed some limelight moments as of late, her driving motivation is the day-to-day work she does with students.
“I earned my doctoral degree at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), but when it came time to start my career, it was important to be in the American Southwest because it's a region where mariachi is really valued at an academic level.”
Salazar received quite a few job offers in Texas but ultimately chose Texas Tech.
“I chose this university because of its robust graduate program,” Salazar said. “I knew I wanted to work with doctoral students and Texas Tech provided the best opportunity to do that.”
Beyond that, Texas was an ideal state to move to due to its prioritization of mariachi programs in K-12 education.
“Texas is leading the way in advancing mariachi in public schools,” Salazar said.
In 2016, the University Interscholastic League (UIL) added mariachi to their competition programming and Salazar has served as a judge since its inception. While still a relatively new addition, it's grown steadily each year.
The placement of mariachi within UIL competitions is a massive moment for the musical tradition. It's placing mariachi performers on the same level as band and orchestra performers – a shift a long time in the making.
Salazar herself has been part of this shift in West Texas. As an applied ethnomusicologist, the bulk of the work she does focuses on social justice issues within the community.
“Our Mariachi group at Texas Tech has Lubbock High School and South Plains College students in it,” Salazar said. “I include them intentionally because it creates a pipeline to higher education. We get more students who apply to Texas Tech or who transfer because of the experience they get with Mariachi Los Matadores.”
The majority of musicians in the group are first-generation college students. So beyond creating exceptional musical experiences, Salazar leverages the ensemble in a way that makes higher education feel welcoming and accessible.
In addition to first-generation students, the ensemble also has students who are not music majors.
“We get a lot of students who are in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) field,” Salazar said. “They tell me all the time that being in the ensemble has helped their retention and given them a cultural context while in college.”
The benefits don't stop with the students themselves.
“I think it's also important to showcase a different, more professional style of mariachi in Lubbock,” Salazar said. “There are lots of negative stereotypes out there in terms of Mexican culture and, unfortunately, mariachi gets lumped into that.”
Mariachi music is often associated with bar music and poor behavior.
“There is that aspect of the tradition,” Salazar said. “But mariachi is so much more than that.”
Mariachi Los Matadores are polished performers who read sophisticated arrangements and even learn choreography.
As Salazar fulfills what she came to Texas Tech to do, she is now turning her sights beyond West Texas to effect change across the state.
“To see mariachi really take off, we need more music educators teaching this genre of music at middle and high school levels,” Salazar says.
The problem with that is most music educators have little to no training in mariachi music. But that doesn't stop them from being placed in those roles.
“For band and orchestra, there are specific programs you go through to be able to teach,” Salazar said. “Right now, nothing like that really exists for mariachi, despite Texas schools increasing their mariachi groups.”
Salazar believes the next big step for Texas Tech and other Texas universities is to create degrees that teach mariachi instruction and performance.
Salazar has made immeasurable contributions to the world of mariachi. She has demonstrated that mariachi can be a pathway to higher education and future opportunity. From tracing her own family's history and understanding how mariachi actually found its way to America, to fighting for the recognition other musical traditions receive in universities, Salazar possesses a determination as steady as the rhythms found in her music.
While her classical background did serve her down the road, Salazar's heart always belonged to mariachi. She works to ensure other students can pursue their passion from the start.
“If you're a young girl in the arts, the tendency is to go into classical music or ballet,” Salazar said. “That's just how the industry is designed. But we're building a world where anyone, no matter their gender, skin color or language, can find art expressions that resonate with them."