American Mariachi highlights Latinx history

Photo: Erica Barillari · CU Denver Sentry

Photo: Erica Barillari · CU Denver Sentry

The Women’s Liberation Movement made the 1970s a revolutionary time for women in the United States. Women fought their way out of the kitchens and into the streets to protest their unequal treatment. In the same decade, Hispanic women fought their way into the male-dominated industry of the mariachi. The Denver Center for the Performing Arts’ recent musical American Mariachi shines a light on a lesser-known side of the Women’s Liberation movement and its effect on Latina women. While its theme is groundbreaking and the music is intoxicating, the writing is sub-par—at best.

When the lights initially come up, the stage is filled with a live mariachi band, their trumpets roaring and guitars strumming. A woman dances across the stage to an infectious beat as viewers prepare for her quest to create her own all-female mariachi band. Suddenly, the woman takes a seat as the lights shine to reveal that she is main character Lucha’s mother, played by Doreen Montalvo. As Lucha, played by Jennifer Paredes, describes the day to her, all air is sucked out of the auditorium as the audience begins to realize the rich depth trapped inside of the mother afflicted with early-onset dementia.

One day, Lucha and her cousin Boli, played by Heather Velasquez, realize the one thing to rescue her mother from her degrading memory: music. Together, the two gather a band of misfit women to join their mariachi group with the main quest of learning her mother’s favorite song.

The theme of a group of outcast women banding together against the will of men is powerful for an era when such acts were rare. Once viewers look past the theme, however, they’ll discover holes in the writing of the piece.

The way that Lucha and Boli talk to each other in their first scene may have been one of the most heavy-handed of all. During the exposition, writers need to dump all of the information that viewers will need to understand the story. This makes the act of writing a natural-feeling exposition a nearly superhuman feat. American Mariachi misses the mark there. The conversation between the two is almost cringeworthy as they as each other questions that feel like, “Do you remember this key event from our childhoods?” to which the other responds with, “Oh yes! That explains why we act the way we do.”

Even then, characters’ motives and actions change in accordance of how each scene needs them to act. One moment, Boli is exhausting every resource to find women for the band, and in the next she is refusing entry to the same woman she had begged to join the mariachi group. In one scene, Lucha’s father is kind and supportive; in the next, he is kicking her out of the house. If a character is to act in such a way, their actions need previously established  justification.

Even with the loose ends left by the poor writing, the musical concludes in a way that doesn’t leave a dry eye in the room. Lucha’s emotional reasoning for setting out to learn the song is felt so deeply by each audience member that when the curtain falls, it’s easy to forget about the shortcomings of the rest of the production.

American Mariachi set out to capture the entirety of a revolutionary time period in a short 90-minute format. Had the show been marginally longer, playwright José Cruz González could have found more subtle ways to build the plot in a more natural way. The emotions are perfectly executed, but the immersive experience of forgetting about reality during a production is missing from American Mariachi.

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