There are very few lipsticks you can wear while playing the trumpet. “Tarteist Creamy Matte Lip Paint works, but you have to exfoliate. If you have any dead skin, it comes off,” says Bobbie Sue Garcia. She’s made a study of long-wearing lip colors (for the record, layering ChapStick under lip pencil works, too) as the trumpeter for Mariachi Las Alteñas, a mariachi group in San Antonio. They’ve got violinists and ornately embroidered charro vests like any other mariachi group, but the Alteñas stand out for one simple but glaring difference: All 10 members are women.
“When mariachi music originated in the 19th century in Jalisco, Mexico, it was only men singing on ranches and in cantinas,” says Angela Campos, Las Alteñas’ musical director and the owner of the San Antonio Mariachi Academy. “Only within the last 75 years have females found a place in mariachi, not just as vocalists but in positions of power — as writers and musicians.” But the Alteñas are an all-female mariachi group — and since their inception in 2002, their rhythmic guitarrón strums and proud trumpet blasts have bested many of their male counterparts at invitation-only competitions.
On a muggy Saturday afternoon, Las Alteñas are determinedly painting their own (and one another’s) faces in their director Valerie Vargas’s living room. They’re transforming from teachers, account managers, and real estate agents into their rock-star alter egos. And to become a rock star, I learn, primer is a must. When they’re playing in near-triple-digit Texas temperatures, wearing long-sleeved trajes down to their ankles, their makeup has to last.
They sandwich foundation between Benefit The Porefessional and M.A.C. Prep + Prime Fix+ Matte spray so it stays put under hot stage lights. To ward off shine, Campos taps on Nivea Men Post Shave Balm: “It doesn’t make me sweat like primers can.” L’Oréal Paris Brow Stylist is pigmented enough to hold its own onstage, Rimmel London Stay Matte Pressed Powder in 001 sets undereye concealer for all-day performances, and Amazing Lash Studio Mascara’s water-based formula enhances lash extensions without loosening the glue or smudging.
“Sebastian Shaper hair spray makes our ponytails really neat, and before we go out to eat after our show, it just combs out,” says violinist Carla Medina Ramirez. When they dress, they carefully balance legacy — the embroidered traje de charro vests and jackets — with a sense of Latina femininity. They wear traditional large silk neckties, palm-size belt buckles, and elegant chandelier earrings. Instead of sombreros, their low, sleek ponytails (anything else gets caught in the sequins on their jackets) are adorned with a beribboned bow that’s nearly the size of a football.
An hour later, the Alteñas are gathered in the foyer of a quinceañera venue, tuning instruments and strumming strings. Vargas talks to the party’s hostess and then turns to me. “The mother was just telling us that we played at her own graduation,” she says. “And now we’re playing at her youngest daughter’s quinceañera.” It’s showtime. The Alteñas file into the ballroom, serenading the teen in the white gown and tiara. The youngest Alteña is also in her teens; the oldest is 48. Some have partners and babies, while others are single or divorced. There isn’t just one body type represented. They are all beautiful, weaving bellowing vocals and sweeping violin and vihuela tones into a backdrop that celebrates a girl’s passage to womanhood. In doing so, they honor tradition — and all the ways it might be redefined.
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