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ASU alumna believes mariachi music is an artform for women

Desiree Figueroa mariachi

Desiree Figueroa, a 2018 ASU graduate, plays the guitarrón, a large, six-string bass instrument, in the all-female mariachi band Las Chulas. Photo courtesy of Desiree Figueroa.

April 05, 2019

Ever heard of a woman performing in a mariachi band? How about an all-female mariachi group?

Desiree Figueroa, an alumna of Barrett, The Honors College at Arizona State University who graduated in 2018, established an all-female mariachi group, Las Chulas, with her best friends recently. Figueroa has earned a bachelor’s degree in interdisciplinary arts and sciences, with a minor in nonprofit leadership and management with honors from Barrett.

“I started playing mariachi my sophomore year of high school,” Figueroa said. “I had already been playing classical music on the violin for years, but I started playing mariachi as a way to explore and celebrate my Mexican heritage.”

Figueroa began studying violin while in the fourth grade. In seventh grade she started taking violin classes at Rosie’s House, a music academy for youngsters in central Phoenix. From eighth to 12th grade she attended Arizona School for the Arts, a public charter school in downtown Phoenix that provides college preparatory and performing arts education.

For years, Figueroa and her friends played with mixed-gendered groups, including Mariachi Juvenil de mi Tierra, a youth mariachi ensemble. They officially started practicing and performing as Las Chulas at the beginning of this year.

Mariachi, a distinct Spanish-language musical genre, is thought to have originated in the Mexican state of Jalisco around the 19th century. Mariachi is traditionally all-male groups dressed in charro uniforms — tight decorated pants, short jackets, silk ties and wide-brimmed sombreros — performing with stringed instruments such as violin, guitar, guitarrón and harp, as well as the trumpet.

Mariachi has survived for centuries and become popular around the world among performers and fans alike. Well-known mariachi bands include Mariachi las Vargas de Tecatlitlán, established in 1897, and Mariachi Sol de México, established in 1958. Female mariachi groups have come into their own in recent years. Mariachi Divas de Cindy Shea, an all-female band established in 1999, has won two Grammy Awards and is an official Disneyland mariachi group. Another Grammy-winning band, Flor de Toloache, was founded in 2008 and bills itself as the “first and only all-woman mariachi group from New York City.”

“In general, the mariachi genre is very male-dominated, which is why we wanted to perform with only women to showcase diversity and female representation,” said Figueroa, who in addition to the violin, plays the guitarrón, a six-string acoustic bass.

Her honors thesis, titled “A Chicana Feminist View on Mariachi Music in the United States,” focuses on the influence of Mexican-American culture in the Southwest, the ascendance of mariachi music and female mariachi performers.

The Phoenix native said she has always lived about 20 minutes away from both ASU’s Downtown Phoenix and Tempe campuses and observed the university’s involvement and contributions to the community, so she is especially proud to be a Sun Devil.

Question: What was your “aha” moment, when you realized you wanted to study the field you majored in?

Answer: My “aha” moment was after my freshman year at ASU. At the time, I was majoring in journalism. Even though the courses were really great, I discovered journalism wasn’t really for me. I sat down with my parents one day and together we went through the entire online catalog of the majors that ASU offers. When I started reading more about the field of interdisciplinary arts and sciences, it sort of just clicked that an interdisciplinary approach to my education was exactly what I needed.

Q: What’s something you learned while at ASU — in the classroom or otherwise — that surprised you and that changed your perspective?

A: I think something that surprised me was how much information was in my immediate reach. ASU provides us with so many resources, whether it be books, online articles and even our professors with their combined years of experience and intelligence.

Q: Why did you choose ASU?

A: I grew up always around the campuses. Even when I was younger, I loved the general atmosphere and feel that I got when I visited. In addition, I have an uncle and a close cousin who graduated from ASU, and they always encouraged me to attend as well. While I looked into other universities around the country, nothing compared to ASU for me.

Q: Which professor taught you the most important lesson while at ASU?

A: Dr. Monica De La Torre in the School of Transborder Studies. She was my thesis director and I also took multiple classes with her. I learned so much in her classes, which were among my favorites. Throughout my honors thesis process, she showed me that even intimidating things like a thesis can be made to be fun and inspiring.

Q: What’s the best piece of advice you’d give to those still in school?

A: Reach out to people! Your professors are always willing and ready to help, whether it be about your coursework, career advice or school in general. Reach out to your classmates as well and make meaningful connections with anyone you meet.

Q: What was your favorite spot on campus, whether for studying, meeting friends or just thinking about life?

A: I loved being in the MU. I always went there to eat lunch, and when I needed a place to study, there was always a quiet spot downstairs to sit and work.

Q: If someone gave you $40 million to solve one problem on our planet, what would you tackle?

A: I would build more animal shelters with staff who would not rest until every animal is relocated to a permanent home, so that no other potential pets are euthanized.

Written by Ranjani Venkatakrishnan of Barrett, The Honors College and Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication

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