American Mariachi
(from left) Doreen Montalvo, Bobby Plasencia, and Jennifer Paredes . Photo: Jim Cox.

American Mariachi

Old Globe, San Diego

By José Cruz González
Directed by James Vásquez
The Old Globe San Diego
March 23 to April 29, 2018

What do you know about mariachi music? If you’re like me, not a lot. Up to now, it’s been the background music while consuming margaritas, chips and queso. Not anymore.

Set in a U.S. Latino community in the 1970s, American Mariachi addresses ethnicity, gender roles, aging, family, friendships, betrayal, hopes-and-dreams® and, of course, music. If that seems like a lot to discuss in 90 minutes, it is.

Lucha (Jennifer Paredes) lives with her ailing mother Amalia (Doreen Montalvo) and her hard-working, mariachi father Federico (Bobby Plasencia). She is often joined by her cousin and good friend Boli (Heather Velazquez).

Lucha wants to go to school, but her mother’s condition, a form of early-onset dementia, and her father’s stubbornness, hold her back. But after she finds and plays a mariachi record that visibly moves her mostly catatonic mother, she and Boli decide to form an all-female mariachi band. Nobody thinks this is a good idea – even some of the women who join the band – but the group finds unforeseen support from Mino (Rodney Lizcano) a former buddy of Lucha’s father.

There are lots of stories here – about the record, about Mino and Federico, about the women joining the band – and some of them work better than others. At times, Lucha’s and her bandmates’ enthusiasm is a little too Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland. The performances by Plascencia and Lizcano offer a world-weary counterpoint to their youthful glee.

The glue that keeps this show together is the music. A roving band (Tom Tinoco, Fernando Guadalupe Zarate Hernandez, Bobby Plasencia, Erick Jiminez, Martin Padilla and Ruben Marin) wanders in and out – between scenes, during scenes. The set is beautifully claustrophobic, evoking a Latino anytown with windows, balconies and relentless brick. The Sharks and Jets could come dancing around the corner at any moment.

There’s a lot I didn’t like about this show – the well-worn clichés and predictable tragedies. Yet, the music makes it work. It’s personally befuddling. All the elements that didn’t light me up, somehow created a platform to provide a more visceral understanding of mariachi. In the closing numbers, I felt the sadness. And if that’s not effective theater, I don’t know what is.

San Diego ,
Josh Baxt has an MFA in creative writing from San Diego State University and writes for a local nonprofit. His play, Like a War, was produced for the annual Fritz litz. Josh's short fiction has been published in the anthologies Sunshine Noir and Hunger and Thirst, as well as the journal City Works.