Meet New York's First — & Only — All-Female Mariachi Band

Photographed by Reggie McCafferty.
Forget mariachi's male-dominated culture. The all-female Flor de Toloache has officially caused a splash on the Mexican folk-music scene, and not just because of their gender.

Vocalist, violinist, and guitarrón Mireya Ramos founded the outfit as a three-piece in 2008, seeking an alternative to the all-men groups she’d been playing with. The band began performing on subway platforms and at bars and restaurants for free food and drinks; since then, they’ve grown to include 13 members, playing on average three to five nights a week at events throughout the city.

While remaining true to many of the elements that make up the mariachi tradition, the women of Flor de Toloache are not afraid to experiment. They're a diverse collective — both ethnically and musically — that draws from their various backgrounds (Dominican, Polish, German, Colombian) to play a fusion of traditional mariachi with soul, jazz, and pop.

Solidifying their mark on the mariachi culture, next month, Flor de Toloache will embark on a pilgrimage to the annual International Mariachi Festival of Guadalajara, the birthplace of this musical phenomenon. (This journey will also be the subject of an upcoming film by Sonia Fritz-Macias, titled Mariachi with Pants.)

Ahead of their trip, group leaders Ramos and Shae Fiol open up about breaking such a long-held stereotype, why their group doesn't wear skirts, and how working with male mariachi actually made them stronger.
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Photographed by Reggie McCafferty.
Why did you decide to form an all-female mariachi group?

Mireya Ramos: "I knew that if we were able to form this group, it would become something important in mariachi history. Also, coming out of New York, I knew that it was going to be something innovative and something that people would like. It just took a while to find the right girls and for us to become tight as a band."
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Photographed by Reggie McCafferty.
Why is mariachi such a masculine tradition?

MR:
"It’s not just mariachi, it's being a musician. That is still a taboo thing for women. As a woman, you’re still seen as...you’re restricted; you’re going to have a kid, you can’t go out and gig like a male would. And Mexican culture is still very much like that."

Shae Fiol: "It’s similar to the issues that women face in every occupation. There are not as many all-women bands, which makes it really in your face, like wow."

Would it be unusual to see an all-female mariachi group in Mexico?

MR: "Yes. There are actually more on the West Coast in California, Arizona, Chicago, and Texas."
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Photographed by Reggie McCafferty.
Are people generally supportive? Have you encountered any resistance?

SF: "Most of the resistance doesn’t come from the fact that we’re women. It’s actually the fact that we are women who don’t dress the way that female mariachi are supposed to; women mariachi traditionally wear skirts, and we wear pants. That’s really what people seem to focus on most. That, and the fact that we’re not Mexican, and that we don’t look Mexican. People don’t focus on the music."
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Photographed by Reggie McCafferty.
So why did you choose to wear pants instead of skirts?

SF: "We actually did start with skirts. We started with long skirts, then we went to knee-length ones, and finally we were like, 'This just isn’t us.' The pants are way cooler, anyway. They fit our bodies and are more flattering. The traditional outfits are rather matronly, and we don’t feel cool walking around in them."

MR: "We make our own outfits, our own pants. We learned from our mentor; he taught us how to make them by hand, how to put the ornaments on them."

SF: "As far as our outfits go, we do what we can. We’re on a limited budget. It’s a big band, and there is a lot of commitment involved. There’s a huge repertoire to be a mariachi; it’s like a wedding band where you have this huge catalog that you need to know so you are able to play any song on the spot. Normally, mariachis buy their outfits because their primary work is as a mariachi. You become a mariachi when you’re little, and you invest in a suit for yourself. It might be $1,000, but that makes sense if that’s your only gig. But our band is made up of women that play in all different groups, so buying an expensive suit doesn’t make sense."
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Photographed by Reggie McCafferty.
Do you play the traditional songs true to their original versions, or do you adapt them in new ways?

MR: "I think we have both. We have the style down, we’ve made sure that we were doing something authentic, that there’s still that belting, passionate essence to the mariachi. But we add our own little things [stylistically], which are not particularly mariachi; they might be a little bit more soul or jazzy or something like that. We try to make it exciting and interesting for us, too. We make it our own. If we’re performing the same songs all the time, we try to have fun with them."
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Photographed by Reggie McCafferty.
From your experience playing with predominantly male mariachi groups, does the dynamic feel different when you play with all women?

MR: "The dynamic between men and women is different in anything. With male mariachis, what I like in particular is the energy and the way they perform. And of course, if they’re traditional, there’s something beautiful about that, too.

"But when working with male mariachis, there’s the whole macho thing. For me in particular, there was a cultural clash. I was raised in Puerto Rico, where there is also machismo, but it’s different.

"There were times where I would end up crying at the end of the gig. Or they would leave me at the end of the night and I would have to take the train alone, just on purpose. If I would speak up for something that I didn’t think was cool, they would have a problem with it. I was the only girl. I would have to fight for myself. And that was really hard. There was a time when I had to realize, to understand for my own sanity, that they’re not going to change. They’re older men, and they just came from Mexico. How do you change someone’s mentality like that?

"Actually, later on, one of the guys that I played with for years apologized to me. He was going to go back to Mexico, and before he left he said, 'I’m sorry. I know that I was wrong, and I respect you as a musician.' It was something that he would have never said to me, and it was beautiful."
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Photographed by Reggie McCafferty.
And how does that dynamic change when working with the women in Flor de Toloache?

MR: "Naturally, we click because of our sensitivity. Also, when we perform, we have this energy where we don’t even have to look at each other and we know what we’re going to play. I think it’s a beautiful thing; it’s very magical. But the dynamic is very different. Women act differently when they’re being told what to do by a woman. That’s the challenging part for Shae and I as leaders."

SF: "I think we can attribute it to the fact that when I work with women, I tend to also embrace them as a friend. I don’t know if it’s something that all women do in the professional world, but it's something that I’ve certainly done. I think that contributes to the dynamic, adding this confusing element of how to be able to be led by a woman who is also your friend. Yes, we’re all equal, but at the same time there still has to be leadership in the group, trying to oversee its vision and making sure that everything is going in the direction it needs to. The more we grow and the more we succeed, the higher the stakes are. That’s where we’re at now. We’re finding our own voices and learning to lead within our group of close friends."

MR: "But it’s beautiful, too, you know. We learn and we grow."
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