Mariachi group depicts Mexican Revolution

The first mariachi opera presented by San Diego Opera in 2013 was a great success. It gave our arts groups an opportunity to reach out to the Latino community while entertaining a traditional opera audience with an entirely new form of musical theater.

A second work by José “Pepe” Martinez, “El Pasado Nunca Se Termina” (“The Past is Never Finished”), is this season’s production. The performers are from the one of the oldest mariachi groups on record, Vargas de Tecalitlán, which performs internationally.

The story is based on the superstition that the 1910 Halley’s comet would foretell of impending evil. In fact, it happened in Mexico with the revolution led by folk heroes Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata that changed the political and social structure of Mexico forever.

A decade of turmoil began in 1910, when Francisco Madero deposed Porfirio Diaz as president of Mexico. That started a series of counterrevolutions and several changes in the government. The powerful political party known as PRI was founded and controlled Mexican politics from 1929 to the 1990s.

The United States became involved several times to protect American interests in Mexico. American troops occupied Veracruz and in 1916 sent Gen. John J. Pershing with 5,000 troops to try to capture Pancho Villa, who had joined with Zapata to occupy Mexico City.

Americans are more familiar with Zapata because of the popular movie starring Marlon Brando in 1952. The colorful Zapatista rebels were mostly indigenous farmers, joined by a large number of women. Photographs of these civilian warriors usually depict their very large sombreros and ammunition belts slung across their shoulders.

In this production, a large cast of Latino artists are making their debuts at San Diego Opera, though all have sung in opera houses in the United States and abroad. The musicians are led by Martinez, who composed the work.

The history of mariachi traces back to the indigenous tribes of Mexico, which performed music with drums, rattles and flutes. When the Spaniards arrived in the 16th century, stringed instruments and, later, trumpets were introduced. A typical mariachi band consists of eight violins, two trumpets and one or more guitars.

The style of mariachi that we know today developed in the state of Jalisco. Among the several disputed sources of the word is one from an image called Maria H, which pronounced in Spanish is “mah-REE-ah AH-chay.”

San Diegans associate mariachi with the lively bars of Tijuana and Old Town. In Mexico, the music is a national symbol of the culture to be played at important civic occasions, weddings and even as part of religious observances.

The music was popular in the 18th century in the countryside, played by peasants in simple white pants and blouses. Mariachi became a national identity when a band played for President Diaz in Mexico City in 1905.

From there it evolved into the costumed ensembles of the 1920s that we see today, with the charro style of tight, decorated trousers and huge sombreros.

Folk operas written for country people’s entertainment have been a cultural form of expression for centuries. The better-known ethnic musical dramas are the zarzuelas of Spain and 19th-century light opera romances of Vienna, among many others.

With more than two centuries of Latino history behind San Diego, we already enjoy food and music inspired by our proximity to Mexico. Now we have an opportunity to experience the tradition of mariachi wrapped into a folk opera.

A mariachi festival with several performers and food stands is scheduled for the Civic Concourse in front of the theater beginning at noon on April 25.

“El Pasado Nunca Se Termina” will have only two performances: 2 and 7 p.m. April 25 at the Civic Theatre. English and Spanish text will be projected over the stage.

For ticket information, call 619-533-7000 or visit

Ford is a past president of San Diego Opera and supports the opera archive at the San Diego State University.

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