Robert Lucero ('08) Captivated by Mariachi Fever

Reprinted with permission from the Albuquerque Journal.Robert Lucero

Mariachi Fever Flourishes in Duke City

By Leslie Linthicum
Journal Staff Writer

Robert Lucero has carried his mariachi mania from Española Valley High School, where he was a founding member and vihuela strummer for Mariachi Española, to the stately campus of Stanford University, where he pulled together a ragtag band of musicians, taught them the difference between a guitar and a guitarrón and launched Mariachi Cardenal, all the way to the University of New Mexico, where he worked his way to a law degree with honors while belting out "Cielito Lindo" at Mexican restaurants around town.

Now that he's a newly minted lawyer at the white-shoe Rodey Law Firm in Albuquerque, don't expect Lucero to hang up his charro suit and sombrero.

Once mariachi has gotten its hooks into you, Lucero says, it's hard to give it up.

"There's just such an energy to it. And it's unmistakable," the 32-year-old says. "You know you're not going to confuse mariachi music with some other genre."

The world may be roughly divided between people who love mariachi music (those are the diners who wave the strolling musicians to their table and request a rousing rendition of "Volver Volver") and people who can't stand mariachi music (those are the folks who stare studiously at their combination platter and try to avoid eye contact with anyone wearing a fancy suit and holding a big guitar).

If you fall into the "I ♥ Mariachi" category, you are in luck. Albuquerque is teeming with trumpeters, violinists and strummers of the big guitarrón this week as the Mariachi Spectacular hits town.

As festivals go, this one is a doozy. It's big: 700 mariachi students from all over the country, 65 professional mariachis and 42 mariachi instructors.

And it's important: Mariachi isn't just music; it's a force that takes hold of kids, teaches them discipline and keeps them engaged in school and family life.

Mariachi power is a proven force, one that Norberta Fresquez has seen at work for decades now as she has organized the Mariachi Spectacular.

"These kids," she says, "they make me cry. It's driven them and given them goals and connected them to their families and their language and their culture."

Some high school kids join marching band; some find their place in a rock band in a neighborhood garage. Lucero was the son of a band director in northern New Mexico — first Las Vegas and then Española — and so he brought his guitar skills to the newly formed mariachi group at Española when he was a freshman.

He played the vihuela, the round-backed guitar that keeps the rhythm strong in most mariachi arrangements.

"It's kind of the heart and soul of the mariachi," says Lucero, who has since switched to trumpet in his current group, Mariachi Tenampa. His wife, Tamarah, another founding member of the Española High group, plays violin in Mariachi Tenampa.

On Fridays, Lucero wraps up his legal work in the business section of the Rodey office, changes from a business suit into his traje de charro, and heads to the regular gig strolling among the diners at Mariscos Altamar in west Albuquerque.

A mariachi in street clothes, Lucero says, wouldn't be a mariachi.

"There's definitely a huge amount of pride that goes along with the suit," Lucero says. "Mariachis have gotten a bad rap, and stereotypes exist. There's the whole fat stomach, beer-drinking, bar music-type image. We make a point that when you put on the suit, you act professionally."

There are hundreds and hundreds of mariachi songs, although patrons tend to request the standards: "Volver Volver," "Cielito Lindo," "Alla en el Rancho Grande" and "Mariachi Loco," which Lucero calls "the bane of our existences. Everyone asks for that song."

Lucero is helping out with the Mariachi Spectacular during its three-day run of events (the annual festival is put on by passionate volunteers) and watching the kids as they learn from some of the best mariachis in the world.

"I think it gives them an opportunity to express themselves and it's something that they can belong to," Lucero says.

It's also a forgiving form of music, full of emotion and energy with room for all.

"It's something that everyone can contribute to. Even if you're not the greatest player, you can sing. If you're not the greatest singer, you can play. It's very easy to get the group to sound good without having to all be virtuosos. When you have that ensemble playing, it's going to sound good."

If you ♥ mariachis, you'll find a little slice of heaven in downtown Albuquerque on Friday night as student groups strut their stuff at Civic Plaza.

UpFront is a daily front-page opinion column. You can reach Leslie at 823-3914 or llinthicum@abqjournal.com.

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