For mariachi singer, musician, and dancer Verónica Robles, the time couldn’t be better to educate the public about the Mexican music tradition, and the strides women are making within it.
“Although it’s fun to see a mariachi [band] among the fajitas and the tacos in a restaurant, one of my goals is to elevate the image of the mariachi in the world so it’s also viewed as a fine art,” said the East Boston resident. “Most of my career I played with all-male or mixed [male and female] mariachis and when there was discussion about an all-female mariachi, I heard so many times how women could not sound as good and how it’s not the same.”
“Music is music,” added Robles, 47, with a slight hint of exasperation. “We’re all professional musicians, so whether you’re a man or a woman shouldn’t matter.” Eager to prove that the centuries-old, largely male-dominated genre does not lend itself to a gender-specific composition, Robles, with the help of a $15,000 grant in 2018 from the Boston Foundation, set out to form New England’s first all-female mariachi.
But by the time Robles held auditions and the eight-member group was solidified and had begun booking shows, the pandemic hit.
“We had the whole year booked and all of our shows were canceled,” said Robles, who plays the vihuela, a Spanish string instrument that looks like a small guitar but is tuned like a lute.
Since some members had to leave, the group dwindled to five performers, which is where it stands now. (Robles said she is looking for additional members, including a bass player and a guitar player, and would like to eventually expand the group to 12.)
Robles said that she has started booking gigs for the group — including a performance on a float in the Bristol, R.I., Fourth of July parade and, in the immediate future, a free virtual Cinco de Mayo Celebrity Series of Boston performance on Wednesday.
“Veronica and her fellow [performers] are great artists. They play beautifully,” said Gary Dunning, president and executive director of Celebrity Series of Boston. “But it’s about more than just the entertainment. She brings to light her cultural traditions and provides a cultural context and foundation for her community.”
Robles said that even though Cinco de Mayo isn’t celebrated in Mexico the way it is in the U.S. — Mexican Independence Day on Sept. 16 is a much bigger deal, she noted — she looks at the holiday as an opportunity to share music and traditions from her culture, as well as to clarify the difference between the two commemorative holidays in her native country.
One of five children, Robles was born and raised in Mexico City. She spent a great deal of time with her grandmother, with whom she would sing traditional Mexican songs for hours on end as her “Mama Coco” cooked in her kitchen and prepared floral arrangements for a part-time job she had decorating tables at a restaurant in Mexico City’s historic Plaza Garibaldi, known as the cradle of mariachi.
“It was like a showcase where people from all over Mexico — or even the world — would come to look for talent,” she explained. “Mariachi was everywhere.” Robles said she would spend time in the plaza with her grandma and “learn from mariachi elders who were always playing and teaching me songs.”
“That’s when I started performing. I was 16 and they’d call my grandma and say, ‘We need a singer. Please send us your granddaughter,’” Robles recalled. “I just loved singing and performing and fell in love with the music, with mariachi. I preferred it to modern music.”
Eventually, she started assembling her own musicians and booking shows not only in Mexico, but in the US. In 1995, she moved to Queens, N.Y. It was there that she met her husband, Willy Lopez, a sound engineer from Peru. In 2000, the couple and their daughter moved to Boston.
Robles very quickly began integrating into the East Boston and Chelsea communities, creating programs for schools and nonprofit organizations that included Latin American dance, music, and art.
In 2008, tragedy struck. The couple’s only child, Kithzia, who was 18, suffered a heart attack and died. Two years later, Robles was diagnosed with cancer and said she came close to dying.
“I didn’t know how I would go on,” she admitted of those difficult years. “But I had a passion for performing — especially for children — and knew I could … that I had to get beyond myself and bring happiness to others.”
In 2013, in honor of her daughter, who loved singing, dancing, and being on stage, Robles opened the Veronica Robles Cultural Center, a nonprofit that is now located in the old Meridian Street Library in East Boston.
“We teach, promote, and celebrate traditional art from Latin America,” she said. “So people — mostly youth — come there and learn the cultures of the different countries by dancing and music and events. We have a small theater, so we offer the space to other artists to present their work, too.”
Robles, who’s well-known in Boston’s Latin community — there’s even a mural of her on the side of a building in East Boston — said she is excited to get back to work at the center, as well as to return to performing mariachi for live audiences.
And the Cinco de Mayo concert is, she said, a step in that direction.
“We’re going to be singing songs from our first [and only] CD, ‘Cuando Sale la Luna,’ which was released in 2019,” she said. “People are going to see beautiful dresses and enjoy happy, fun music performed by amazing women playing mariachi music with love and passion.”
VERÓNICA ROBLES CINCO DE MAYO CELEBRATION
7:30 p.m. May 5. Free. Registration required. tickets.celebrityseries.org
Juliet Pennington can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.