Growing up in a Mexican home in Indiana, Ibet Herrera always loved mariachi. The historically male-dominated regional Mexican music inspired her as a young artist learning to play the piano and violin. But when she discovered all-women mariachi bands, like Mariachi Divas and Mariachi Reina de Los Angeles, it became something she actually could see herself doing.
In 2017, Herrera, who was then living in Chicago, made her dream come true. That year, she and singer-violinist Eréndira Izguerra, who had been performing with a mostly-male group at the time, formed Mariachi Sirenas, the first all-women mariachi band in the Windy City. While the reception has been great — especially among young women listeners — the group often fields critiques, generally from men, who ask why all-female mariachi groups are needed, suggest they lower their rates, and diminish their work as merely a hobby. But the women of Mariachi Sirenas haven’t been deterred.
“If we are able to remind our community what mariachi music is, why it started, and why it's so powerful, then I think our job is done,” Herrera tells Refinery29 Somos.
Across the country, the once anomaly of all-women mariachi bands are becoming more popular — but this doesn’t make their presence any less impactful or important. Historically, the musical genre with roots in 19th century Mexico has been led by all-men bands who perform songs from a male’s perspective, including classics like “El Rey,” a tale of male fragility and self-importance. When the all-women groups perform some of the traditional hits, many of them positioning women in less-than-complimentary ways, they add “a comedic effect” that mocks or pushes back on the genre’s renowned sexism.
In this way, female mariachi musicians revitalize, and preserve, the genre — despite any resistance they might experience as women performers. Take Mariachi Nuevo Mujer 2000, an all-women mariachi band originally founded in 1999 that now has 13 new members who live across the Southwest. Currently led by Patricia Fernandez, the group is equally focused on performing as they are on mentoring young female mariachi artists through educational mariachi music courses.
“I see a lot more girl students than I do male [students] sometimes,” Fernandez tells Somos. “We're adding on to that. Before it was male dominated. … Now in my classes, I see more girls, more women in the classes than it used to be when I was part of those classes when I was young.”
And the world is noticing. In a segment of The Kelly Clarkson Show that aired in October 2021, the host featured Mariachi Bonitas, a 13-member, multi-generational band, introducing a women-fronted version of the genre to the show’s more than 1 million viewers. The group, founded by Sacramento-based Dinorah Klingler in 2020, performed an original song from their first album.
There have, of course, been setbacks as the group navigates the mariachi scene with an all-female ensemble. “There are still people out there that are not very comfortable,” Klingler tells Somos. “I have unfortunately encountered a couple of clients that say, ‘Wow, this is all-girl. No, I want the traditional mariachi of males. Thank you very much. We don't need you anymore.’ It happened to me a couple of times.”
But that hasn’t stopped Klingler. Instead, it pushes her to find new ways to widen representation for women in mariachi. In addition to the band, Klingler produces the Mariachi Festival de Sacramento, which showcases female, male, and co-ed bands. “There are a lot of Latinos in this country, especially in this state,” Klingler says. “I believe that Sacramento deserves this kind of festival [where] people can be in touch and close to their own traditions, culture, and arts.”
Taking matters into their own hands, and paying homage to the genre their own way, seems to be a common thread among all-female mariachi groups. It’s how Flor de Toloache went from playing in New York City subway stations in 2008, to performing for NPR’s wildly popular Tiny Desk live music series in 2016, to taking home the Best Ranchero/Mariachi Album award in 2017 for their self-titled album.
The internationally recognized group is popular for challenging the status quo, like performing in traditional charro pantsuits rather than skirts, which is expected of women mariachi artists. But Flor de Toloache is unique for reasons beyond defying gender expectations. Unlike many other mariachi bands, the group is made up of musicians from across Latin America and even the world, with one member from Germany.
“Mariachi is such a big part of Latin American culture all over, from the Caribbean to all the way to South America,” co-founder Shae Fiol, who is Cuban-American, tells Somos. “It's such an important genre, and it just has such a broad reach.”
While Flor de Toloache’s diverse members have helped them build a vast fan base that crosses gender, age, race, ethnicity, and language, it hasn’t been easy for the group to find acceptance within the mariachi community. “It's not very common in mariachi to see a Black person leading a band, especially an all-female band,” says bandleader and co-founder Mireya Ramos, who is of Dominican-Mexican descent and was raised in Puerto Rico. But, according to the musician, this is why bringing her whole self to her artistry is so critical. The group often performs “Las Caras Lindas,” an iconic Puerto Rican song originally composed and performed by salsero Ismael Rivera that speaks melancholy to racial politics on the archipelago, as a way for Ramos to celebrate her Afro-Latina origins.
“Music has saved me and I've found my place through my music experience and through connecting [with] my roots,” she adds.
It’s a testament to the power of song and a rebellion that connects each of the all-female groups, no matter their musical approach, race, or geographical location.