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'Mariachi Masses' return at Arizona cathedral

by GIOVANNA DELL’ORTO THE ASSOCIATED PRESS | August 22, 2021 at 3:33 a.m.
Mariachi band Los Changuitos Feos (Ugly Little Monkeys) members preform for parishioners after a morning Mass at St. Augustine Cathedral Sunday, Aug. 18, 2021 in downtown Tucson. (AP Photo/Darryl Webb)

TUCSON, Ariz. -- After more than a year of silence because of the pandemic, mariachis are again playing Sunday services at Tucson's St. Augustine Cathedral, where the colorful and sonorous tradition dates back a half-century and fuses Roman Catholicism with Mexican American pride.

For the hundreds of worshippers gathered in the Spanish colonial church, and for other congregations across the Southwest, the unique sound of mariachi liturgy is more than just another version of choir. It evokes a borderlands identity where spirituality and folk music have blended for centuries.

"Syncretism is the reality of this land, the 'ambos' reality," said the Rev. Alan Valencia, the cathedral's rector, who grew up attending mariachi Mass in "ambos Nogales," or "both Nogales," as those in the area refer to the two cities of the same name straddling the U.S.-Mexican border about 60 miles to the south.

"And that's what we see in these mariachi Masses," he added. "Faith and culture come together and grow."

[Video not showing up above? Click here to watch » arkansasonline.com/822mariachis/]

Mariachi forms the soundtrack to daily life in the borderlands, accompanying everything from backyard barbecues and quinceanera coming-of-age parties to weddings and funerals.

Yet while mariachi is a popular genre at its core, musicians and parishioners alike say its emotional interplay of trumpet, violin, guitar, vihuela and guitarron is a natural complement to the holy rites.

"The Mass itself is a reminder that you don't just have mariachis you tip at tableside in a cantina," said Alberto Ranjel, who has been playing at the cathedral since he was 9 and who now leads the ensemble his father founded, Mariachi Tapatio. "It is a representation of my culture."

Worshipper Leilani Gomez echoed that sentiment, saying: "They bring to Mass culture and art, together with the presence of God. They make you feel the presence of God."

The first canon of mariachi Mass was composed in Cuernavaca, Mexico, after the Vatican encouraged the incorporation of regional musical traditions into services in the 1960s. Called the Misa Panamericana, or Pan-American Mass, it features a specific order of instrumental arrangements, sung prayers and hymns, according to Dan Sheehy, director and curator of the Smithsonian Folkways Recordings.

At that time in the U.S., the Chicano civil-rights movement was blossoming, and mariachi musicians morphed from folksy troubadours to cultural heroes, "symbols of Mexican identity heightened here because of multiculturalism," Sheehy added.

Hundreds of mariachi school programs followed in the 1970s, when the music began to be written down instead of taught by lyrical training, said George Bejarano, who in 1973 started playing with the youth group Los Changuitos Feos, or "the ugly little monkeys," and whose family has been in the borderlands "since before there were borders." Also, female musicians began joining the traditionally male ensembles.

Mainstays of mariachi Mass include the joyful "Pescador de Hombres," or "fisher of men" -- the Spanish-speaking faithful's equivalent of "Amazing Grace" for its popularity and ubiquity -- and a rendition of Franz Schubert's 19th-century classic "Ave Maria."

Alma Mccune 15, and fellow members of mariachi band Los Changuitos Feos (Ugly Little Monkeys) preform for parishioners after a morning Mass at St. Augustine Cathedral Sunday, Aug. 18, 2021 in downtown Tucson. (AP Photo/Darryl Webb)
Alma Mccune 15, and fellow members of mariachi band Los Changuitos Feos (Ugly Little Monkeys) preform for parishioners after a morning Mass at St. Augustine Cathedral Sunday, Aug. 18, 2021 in downtown Tucson. (AP Photo/Darryl Webb)
Los Changuitos Feos (Ugly Little Monkeys) Mariachi band members Cameron Davison 18, and Roman Murillo 14, play their trumpets as they preform during the morning Mass at St. Augustine Cathedral Sunday, Aug. 18, 2021 in downtown Tucson. (AP Photo/Darryl Webb)
Los Changuitos Feos (Ugly Little Monkeys) Mariachi band members Cameron Davison 18, and Roman Murillo 14, play their trumpets as they preform during the morning Mass at St. Augustine Cathedral Sunday, Aug. 18, 2021 in downtown Tucson. (AP Photo/Darryl Webb)
Mariachi band Los Changuitos Feos (Ugly Little Monkeys) preform for parishioners during a morning Mass at St. Augustine Cathedral Sunday, Aug. 18, 2021 in downtown Tucson. While mariachi is a popular genre at its core, musicians and parishioners alike say its emotional interplay between trumpet, violin, guitar, vihuela and guitarrón are a natural complement to the holy rites of Mass. (AP Photo/Darryl Webb)
Mariachi band Los Changuitos Feos (Ugly Little Monkeys) preform for parishioners during a morning Mass at St. Augustine Cathedral Sunday, Aug. 18, 2021 in downtown Tucson. While mariachi is a popular genre at its core, musicians and parishioners alike say its emotional interplay between trumpet, violin, guitar, vihuela and guitarrón are a natural complement to the holy rites of Mass. (AP Photo/Darryl Webb)
St. Augustine Cathedral parishioners watch and listen as the mariachi band Los Changuitos Feos (Ugly Little Monkeys) preforms for them Sunday, Aug. 18, 2021 in downtown Tucson. While mariachi is a popular genre at its core, musicians and parishioners alike say its emotional interplay between trumpet, violin, guitar, vihuela and guitarrón are a natural complement to the holy rites of Mass. (AP Photo/Darryl Webb)
St. Augustine Cathedral parishioners watch and listen as the mariachi band Los Changuitos Feos (Ugly Little Monkeys) preforms for them Sunday, Aug. 18, 2021 in downtown Tucson. While mariachi is a popular genre at its core, musicians and parishioners alike say its emotional interplay between trumpet, violin, guitar, vihuela and guitarrón are a natural complement to the holy rites of Mass. (AP Photo/Darryl Webb)
After a long absence Tucson's St. Augustine Cathedral's rector, the Rev. Alan Valencia welcomes back the Mariachi band Los Changuitos Feos (Ugly Little Monkeys) as they prepare to preform during their morning Mass Sunday, Aug. 18, 2021 in downtown Tucson. “Syncretism is the reality of this land, the ‘ambos’ reality,” says Valencia, the cathedral’s rector, who grew up attending mariachi Mass in “ambos Nogales,” or “both Nogales,” as locals refer to the two cities of the same name straddling the U.S.-Mexican border about 60 miles (100 kilometers) to the south. (AP Photo/Darryl Webb)
After a long absence Tucson's St. Augustine Cathedral's rector, the Rev. Alan Valencia welcomes back the Mariachi band Los Changuitos Feos (Ugly Little Monkeys) as they prepare to preform during their morning Mass Sunday, Aug. 18, 2021 in downtown Tucson. “Syncretism is the reality of this land, the ‘ambos’ reality,” says Valencia, the cathedral’s rector, who grew up attending mariachi Mass in “ambos Nogales,” or “both Nogales,” as locals refer to the two cities of the same name straddling the U.S.-Mexican border about 60 miles (100 kilometers) to the south. (AP Photo/Darryl Webb)
Mariachi band members of Los Changuitos Feos (Ugly Little Monkeys) read sheet music for "Ave Maria" during a performance for parishioners during the morning Mass at St. Augustine Cathedral Sunday, Aug. 18, 2021 in downtown Tucson. The first canon of mariachi Mass was composed in Cuernavaca, Mexico, after the Vatican encouraged the incorporation of regional musical traditions into services in the 1960s. Called the Misa Panamericana, or Pan-American Mass, it features a specific order of instrumental arrangements, sung prayers and hymns, according to Dan Sheehy, director and curator of the Smithsonian Folkways Recordings. (AP Photo/Darryl Webb)
Mariachi band members of Los Changuitos Feos (Ugly Little Monkeys) read sheet music for "Ave Maria" during a performance for parishioners during the morning Mass at St. Augustine Cathedral Sunday, Aug. 18, 2021 in downtown Tucson. The first canon of mariachi Mass was composed in Cuernavaca, Mexico, after the Vatican encouraged the incorporation of regional musical traditions into services in the 1960s. Called the Misa Panamericana, or Pan-American Mass, it features a specific order of instrumental arrangements, sung prayers and hymns, according to Dan Sheehy, director and curator of the Smithsonian Folkways Recordings. (AP Photo/Darryl Webb)
After morning Mass, Mariachi band Los Changuitos Feos (Ugly Little Monkeys) preform for parishioners outside in the courtyard of St. Augustine Cathedral Sunday, Aug. 18, 2021 in downtown Tucson. For the hundreds of worshipers gathered in this Spanish colonial church, and other congregations across the Southwest, the unique sound of mariachi liturgy is more than just another version of choir. It evokes a borderlands identity where spirituality and folk music have blended for centuries. (AP Photo/Darryl Webb)
After morning Mass, Mariachi band Los Changuitos Feos (Ugly Little Monkeys) preform for parishioners outside in the courtyard of St. Augustine Cathedral Sunday, Aug. 18, 2021 in downtown Tucson. For the hundreds of worshipers gathered in this Spanish colonial church, and other congregations across the Southwest, the unique sound of mariachi liturgy is more than just another version of choir. It evokes a borderlands identity where spirituality and folk music have blended for centuries. (AP Photo/Darryl Webb)
Mariachi band Los Changuitos Feos (Ugly Little Monkeys) preform for parishioners during a morning Mass at St. Augustine Cathedral Sunday, Aug. 18, 2021 in downtown Tucson. In 1960s United States, the Chicano civil rights movement was blossoming, and mariachi musicians morphed from folksy troubadours to cultural heroes, “symbols of Mexican identity heightened here because of multiculturalism,” according to Dan Sheehy, director and curator of the Smithsonian Folkways Recordings. (AP Photo/Darryl Webb)
Mariachi band Los Changuitos Feos (Ugly Little Monkeys) preform for parishioners during a morning Mass at St. Augustine Cathedral Sunday, Aug. 18, 2021 in downtown Tucson. In 1960s United States, the Chicano civil rights movement was blossoming, and mariachi musicians morphed from folksy troubadours to cultural heroes, “symbols of Mexican identity heightened here because of multiculturalism,” according to Dan Sheehy, director and curator of the Smithsonian Folkways Recordings. (AP Photo/Darryl Webb)
Los Changuitos Feos (Ugly Little Monkeys) mariachi band members Roman Murillo 14, and Cameron Davison 18, play their trumpets as they preform during the morning Mass at St. Augustine Cathedral Sunday, Aug. 18, 2021 in downtown Tucson. After more than a year of silence due to the pandemic, mariachis are back playing Sunday services at the cathedral, where the colorful and sonorous tradition dates back a half-century and fuses Roman Catholicism with Mexican American pride. (AP Photo/Darryl Webb)
Los Changuitos Feos (Ugly Little Monkeys) mariachi band members Roman Murillo 14, and Cameron Davison 18, play their trumpets as they preform during the morning Mass at St. Augustine Cathedral Sunday, Aug. 18, 2021 in downtown Tucson. After more than a year of silence due to the pandemic, mariachis are back playing Sunday services at the cathedral, where the colorful and sonorous tradition dates back a half-century and fuses Roman Catholicism with Mexican American pride. (AP Photo/Darryl Webb)

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