Associate professor Lauryn Salazar is the director of Mariachi Los Matadores, but her influence over the musical genre reaches much farther than Texas Tech.
Lauryn Salazar is a leading expert on mariachi music and the foremost authority on the academic mariachi movement throughout Mexico and the U.S. She has revolutionized the institutionalization of mariachi in American academic programs, from primary to the collegiate level.
The associate professor of musicology at Texas Tech University's J.T. & Margaret Talkington College of Visual & Performing Arts' School of Music is a member of the two-time Grammy award-winning “Mariachi Divas de Cindy Shea,” a cultural adviser for Disney Pixar and most recently consulted with the United States Postal Service to design a new line of mariachi-themed stamps.
But before Salazar earned any of these accolades, she was a young girl trying to find her place in music, which can be a sexualized industry, with never quite the right body or demeanor.
She originally looked to the classical conservatory for collegiate training. Growing up, she had trained in voice, piano and dance, so she auditioned at vocal programs across the country.
In one audition when she was 17 years old, Salazar was trying out for an opera program. As she finished her arias, the male professor paused, looked her in the eye and said, “You're too ugly and too fat to be believable.”
Salazar was devastated.
Men's body shapes were not taken into consideration, but for women, it was another story. And while Salazar was discouraged, she was too strong to let one ignorant comment keep her down for long.
Finding Her Own Path
Salazar is thankful she didn't pursue opera because when she started college, she was reminded of something she loved even more: mariachi.
“But I didn't see a way to turn mariachi into a legitimate career,” Salazar said. “When I got to college, I realized there was a whole field called ethnomusicology, and that changed everything.”
First at Carleton College and then at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), Salazar devoted herself to studying mariachi through the lens of ethnomusicology. Simply put, she studied the culture, history and pedagogy of the tradition.
During this time, Salazar thought it wise to look for other women making a career of mariachi but struggled to find them.
“I think it was inherent that I looked for female role models because I attended an all-girls Catholic school growing up,” Salazar said.
Being in a single-sex environment like that meant all her role models were women. And not only were the staff highly educated women, but they also turned out highly educated women. Salazar's school network also was attended by the Kennedy women, Sen. Dianne Feinstein and Cokie Roberts.
“Honestly, I really enjoyed the all-female environment,” Salazar said. “I had great role models and it allowed me to become a strong, independent individual.”
But when she got to college, Salazar started noticing small gender discrepancies. She recalls that her professors would often call on men before women in class. Young women in her co-ed classes didn't seem as confident as the girls she had studied with in high school. Even in her mariachi work, there were only one or two women across the country that Salazar could study under.
“From its beginnings until the 1970s, there were few prominent women in mariachi,” Salazar said.
In 1978, the late Laura Sobrino broke onto the scene to the delight of some and the revulsion of others. The violinist joined “Mariachi Los Caltecas,” “Mariachi Uclatlán” and many other ensembles later in her career.
“Both Laura Sobrino and Rebecca Gonzalez were trailblazers for women in mariachi in the U.S.,” Salazar said.
Salazar knew Sobrino well because she studied under her tutelage.
“I took violin lessons with Sobrino and was able to hear many of her stories of her time breaking onto the scene,” Salazar said. “While they were exciting times, they also were filled with trials.”
Sobrino endured sexual harassment, which was not uncommon for women in mariachi during the 1970s and 1980s. Sobrino shared stories of women's husbands or boyfriends smashing their instruments to pieces to keep them from playing.
During mariachi's golden age in film from the 1930s until the 1950s, there was the trope of the womanizing mariachi, the drunk mariachi and so forth. During that time, if you traveled to Tijuana, Mexico, and walked down the main thoroughfare, you would see two things: mariachi groups and brothels.
“So, if you're a woman in mariachi, what are people going to think?” Salazar asked. “Understanding the historical association between this music and the sexualization of women is important to understanding why it's been difficult for women to enter the scene and be taken seriously.”
Salazar said people eventually came around to women playing the violin in mariachi groups as a sort of token for inclusion. But when women started playing the guitarrón or vihuela, they met another wave of resistance. Some instruments were seen as masculine – and women had no business picking them up.
After experiencing overt sexualization in opera, Salazar was coming head to head with a similar attitude in mariachi.
“There are many beautiful things about my culture, but machismo is not one of them,” Salazar said.
Machismo, a Mexican term for aggressive masculinity, is an attitude Salazar has experienced in various places.
“Sometimes it has different names, but it's still the same thing,” she said.
The difference was Salazar loved mariachi. She was not going to let a lack of female representation stop her from following her passion.
“I had to stick to my guns,” Salazar said. “This was different from the opera experience. I didn't feel called to be an opera singer, but I felt called to do this. I wasn't going to let anyone tell me I didn't belong.”
In 2013, Salazar accepted a position with Texas Tech and moved from California to the High Plains of West Texas. When she arrived, there was no mariachi program at Texas Tech. Salazar quickly set out to remedy this, as Lubbock is a hub for the mariachi tradition. She transformed “Mariachi Los Matadores” into a professional ensemble.
“It seemed strange there were not more mariachi opportunities at the collegiate level in Texas,” Salazar said, “or even the high school level.”
Salazar started visiting conferences hosted by the Texas Music Educators Association (TMEA) and saw plenty of resources for band, orchestra and choir programs, but nothing for mariachi.
This seemed odd to her, considering how imbedded Mexican heritage is within Texas culture. Traveling the state, one can find mariachi groups playing in almost every town. While popular for entertainment, mariachi was not seen as a serious academic pursuit.
“There are a lot of negative stereotypes out there in terms of Mexican culture, and unfortunately, mariachi gets lumped into that,” Salazar said. “I think that's part of why it was being left out of these larger conversations.”
Salazar was determined to change the narrative.
Shattering Outdated Sentiment
Mariachi music does have some unfavorable associations, but it is so much more than that. While mariachi is often enjoyed in the bar scene, it's also important for birthdays, baptisms, weddings and can be found in schools and churches.
“Mariachi can follow someone through an entire lifetime,” Salazar said, “as it has mine.”
However, as vast as the genre is, its performers and audience are still growing. Only 10 years ago, Salazar said the competitions she attended were mostly comprised of all male groups led by male directors.
Fast forward to 2016, the University Interscholastic League (UIL) implemented a state mariachi festival pilot. In its first year, 55 schools qualified and participated. The next year, that number grew to 70. After three years, the festival moved out of its pilot stage and was officially sanctioned as an annual event.
Salazar was a driving force behind the festival.
In fact, if you note where mariachi programs are taking off across the state, you'll likely find Salazar somehow involved.
“I just got back from the TMEA conference a few weeks ago and there was buzz around mariachi like I've never seen before,” Salazar said. “There is an energy and momentum taking off; students and educators are starting to recognize the genre as an esteemed form of musical study.”
TMEA conferences are filled with lectures, presentations but most of all, performances. It's a platform for music educators to show off their best and brightest. Each year you'll find string quartets, pianists and even tuba players on stage.
But mariachi groups haven't had a large presence at the conference. Partially due to a lack of groups, and partially due to a lack of audience members interested in listening.
This year was different.
“There were mariachi performances, yes, but more than that, as I looked around the concert halls, the audience was more diverse than I've ever seen before,” Salazar said, with excitement in her voice.
Salazar said the mariachi group that performed was the only ensemble at the conference that memorized repertoire, specifically, an hour-and-a-half of repertoire.
That's no joke.
“It takes extreme skill to put that amount of repertoire together by memory in less than a week,” Salazar said. “Mariachi performers are showing up, and they're setting the bar high in terms of professionalism and talent.”
But more than anything, Salazar beamed with pride as she noticed the presence of many young women in the mariachi groups.
“Some of the groups were actually 60% female this year,” Salazar said. “That may not mean much to young women just picking up the tradition, but it means something to the rest of us.
“It means a lot to the women whose instruments were broken, or reputations scandalized only 50 years ago, for doing this same thing.”
Salazar knows there is a long way to go, but in the past decade, she's started Texas Tech's first mariachi group and is indirectly responsible for the beginning of countless new ensembles in primary and secondary institutions. Educators from all over the U.S. and even Canada are reaching out to her as they begin implementing mariachi programs of their own.
While Salazar is now enjoying career highs, she acknowledges the long road to get there.
“There will always be someone out there who doesn't want you to succeed,” she said, “or someone who thinks you need to be a certain skin color, gender or appearance to be accepted in a performance space.”
Salazar has encountered plenty of those people, but she's encountered more people who have been inclusive, welcoming, creative and collaborative.
“Salazar is a stellar musician who collaborates in Hollywood with Grammy artists,” said Kim Walker, a professor in the School of Music. “As our foremost ethnomusicologist she integrates a rare mix of performance artistry, leadership and scholarship.”
This admiration is shared by Associate Professor of Musicology, Stacey Jocoy.
“Salazar's work in the field of ethnomusicology considers mariachi not only as music and culture but as an enactment of social justice that is both innovative and sorely needed.”
As Salazar brings these values to life, she encourages other young women entering the visual and performing arts industry with the lessons she has learned.
“Yes, women have been treated unfairly at times, but women are not victims,” Salazar said. “That's not the focus or spirit behind Women's History Month or any effort for gender equality. Women can do whatever we set our minds to, and that's something I try to embody with my students here at Texas Tech.
“If you know you're meant to do something, stick to your guns. It may take years to see the payoff, but you will.”