Texas boy is the world's youngest mariachi. For his dad, it's a return to Mexican family roots

Texas boy is the world's youngest mariachi. For his dad, it's a return to Mexican family roots
·13 min read

Voz de la guitarra mía al despertar la mañana quiere cantar su alegría a mi tierra Mexicana.

The voice of my guitar wants to sing its joy to my Mexican homeland when morning breaks.

– "Mexico Lindo y Querido," traditional mariachi song

SAN ANTONIO – Mateo Lopez tugged at the collar of his shirt and wrenched his neck, as if to free his voice. Then, as violins slashed behind him and guitars rippled before him in a rehearsal room at the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center, he belted out "La Noche y Tu," concluding with a flourish that prompted shouts of “Eso! Eso!” Right on!

Like many mariachi musicians, Mateo treasures his Mexican heritage and loves singing songs about romance, a mother's love, pleas for forgiveness and life and death in the countryside. Mateo, who is only 7, also likes throwing baseballs and seeing how fast he can run from one end of a hallway to the other.

The bilingual second grader has been performing since he was 4 years and 236 days old, a mark that earned him recognition in April as the world's youngest mariachi by Guinness World Records.

Mateo’s star took off after a video went viral of him singing at a Mexican restaurant in late 2018. He's since appeared on Mexico’s version of “America’s Got Talent” and NBC’s “Little Big Shots,” had a split-second cameo in a Super Bowl ad for Peacock's "Bel-Air" and has two singles on Apple Music.

“I want to be the best mariachi in the world,” he says. He also wants to own a pizza joint, “because then I can have it every day for lunch.”

In him, some see a future star, citing not just his abilities but the aura and confidence of a veteran artist. Mateo, who is charming and jaunty with short, dark hair parted to one side, can perform more than two dozen mariachi tunes without missing a beat, backs himself on guitar on four of them and dabbles with the harp – even if he can't yet tie his shoe.

“It’s not just his God-given talents but his charisma,” said Sylvia Hernandez, a youth talent agent with Kreativ Artists in Los Angeles. “He’s got a big career ahead of him.”

Gino Rivera, founder of Mariachi Azteca de America, the San Antonio-based ensemble with whom Mateo often practices, calls him “a one-in-a-million” talent who absorbs instruction and criticism with maturity.

For Albert Lopez, Mateo's father, the picture is more complex. In Mateo, he sees not only his son but also his father, Leocadio Lopez, a Mexican immigrant who died before Mateo was born and whose love for mariachi music Albert didn’t – couldn’t – appreciate until it was too late.

Not being musicians themselves, Albert, 44, and his wife, Janelle, 42, can’t explain Mateo’s gift or the passion that sometimes makes their son sing in his sleep. He idolized his older sister as she learned violin, they said, and spent hours with his grandmother as she listened to mariachi music while making tortillas in the kitchen.

Sometimes it all seems like a seed planted by his grandfather.

“I don’t think he’s really wrapped his head around what he’s doing,” Albert said. “He’s just doing it because he likes it.”

'He just started singing'

Ask Mauro Calvo, and he’ll tell you about the day it all began. As then-manager of one of San Antonio’s largest event venues, he’d hosted galas and major special events – then one afternoon in December 2018, he welcomed into his office a man seeking a site for his daughter’s quinceañera.

That man – Albert Lopez – introduced his 4-year-old son, Mateo.

“He came to me and shook my hand,” Calvo said. “He wasn’t off somewhere playing with his Hot Wheels. He was just a tiny boy, but he carried himself well.”

He and Lopez started chatting, and Calvo noted that Mateo was humming a mariachi tune to himself – Linda Ronstadt’s version of “Por Un Amor.”

Lopez chuckled and said that yes, Mateo liked to entertain people. “Sing something for Mr. Calvo,” he told him.

Mateo didn’t pause or protest. “He just started singing,” said Calvo, who thought, The kid knows the words. And his beat and pitch are right on.

As a technician set up in the venue ballroom for an evening gig, Calvo asked Lopez if Mateo might want to try singing with a microphone. The three went over, and Calvo set the youngster atop a table and asked what song they should play. Mateo named a title and waited, as assured as a veteran performer.

This must be some kind of prank, Calvo thought – but Mateo sang the song, and Calvo remembers him walking back and forth across the table, nonchalantly stepping to its edge, singing right into their eyes.

“Afterward, the guy playing the music was like, ‘Who is this kid?’ And I’m like, ‘I don’t know.’ Mateo blew my mind,” Calvo said. “He was singing like there was 10,000 people there.

“I asked his dad, ‘Have you seen him do this?’ He said, ‘Not like that.’ I told him, ‘You got something there.’”

The next weekend, at Calvo’s suggestion, Mateo's parents dressed him in a traje de charro – the traditional suit worn by mariachis – that his grandmother had given him for Dia de los Muertos and took him to the San Antonio River Walk, where he sang for a curious crowd. It seemed cute – but nothing more.

Not until a few weeks later, in January 2019, did things change. The family, marking Janelle Lopez's birthday, was looking for late dinner after a monster truck show at the Alamodome. They headed to Mi Tierra, a colorful landmark restaurant that features mariachis.

After they’d been seated, Mateo told his dad he wanted to sing for his mom, and Albert Lopez beckoned the band and asked them to play “Por Un Amor.” As he captured the occasion with his phone, the 4-year-old stood on a chair and sang his heart out, his zeal nearly toppling him off the seat.

“Everybody was floored,” Albert said. “That’s the video that started everything.”

Growing fame – and a growing frame

Mateo and his family live in San Antonio's northwest suburbs, in a spacious home with a rambling playground of a backyard and an image of la Virgen de Guadalupe overlooking the living room.

A photo gallery above Mateo’s bed is an ode to how life has unfolded since that viral video, recalling his performances on “Mexico Tiene Talento” in April 2019 and “Little Big Shots,” where Mateo, then 5, astonished the audience and host Melissa McCarthy in February 2020 with a self-assured strut around the stage.

In October 2021, Mexico City's renowned Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlàn invited Mateo to an appearance in McAllen, Texas, and backed him up in a backstage performance, a prestigious stamp of approval.

"That's the top of the food chain when it comes to mariachi music," said Albert Lopez, a criminal investigator for the Bexar County District Attorney's Office.

In February, Mateo traveled to Italy to appear on “Lo Show dei Record,” highlighting Guinness World Record honorees. In April in Miami, he recorded and performed “Mamà,” a song he’d learned in just a day, for a Mother’s Day episode of the Telemundo show “Hoy Dia.”

At practices with San Antonio's Mariachi Azteca de America, he’ll scurry up to musicians when he recognizes a song, studying their finger movements as they play – and when he gets his own chance to sing, he'll extend his arm with a clenched fist as he delivers a particularly passionate line.

“It’s like a playground for him,” said Ariella Lopez, Mateo’s 17-year-old sister, a violinist who practices with the ensemble and plays with all-female mariachi band Las Damas de Jalisco.

Mateo’s closet teems with a dozen trajes, including eight or nine that he's outgrown, and a series of ever larger sombreros; his newest, a bone-colored gem embroidered with his initials, is 30 inches across.

“He grows out of them so fast,” said his mother, Janelle Lopez, chief operating officer for San Antonio’s Methodist Hospital. The family hires tailors in Guadalajara and Mexico City to stitch new ones as they go.

As Mateo’s fame has grown, his parents try to keep him humble, teaching him to shake the hand of everyone he meets and to send handwritten notes to those who helped him with his craft.

His father tries to instill in him a sense of community obligation, reminding him before his Italy show that he not only represented himself and his family but his country and culture. Mateo, who sang “Mexico Lindo y Querido” – an homage to Mexico that was one of his grandfather's favorite songs – responded by shouting, “Viva Mexico!” as he finished the song.

Mateo and his sister were among a delegation of 50 San Antonio mariachis who traveled to Uvalde, Texas, to offer comfort to a community grieving the 21 people killed in last month’s mass shooting at Robb Elementary School.

“More and more, he’s starting to realize he’s good at what he does,” Albert Lopez said. “People say he’s like a diamond that just needs to be polished.”

He aims to nurture that talent as long as Mateo wants to pursue it. For Albert, it’s more than just parenting. It's a way of laying old demons to rest.

'It was a life I didn't want'

Albert's father, Leocadio "Lalo" Lopez, was born in Coahuila, Mexico, where he played in an orchestra and learned trumpet, guitar and piano before switching to mariachi music at age 16. He immigrated to Texas in the 1970s, where he met his wife, Maria Teresa, had two sons and earned U.S. citizenship.

For a time, Leocadio held three jobs in San Antonio, working at a bakery and a recycling center in addition to regular stints as a mariachi.

The Spanish-speaking family lived in a rough Latino neighborhood, and Albert recalls being one of 14 boys of similar age who lived on the same small street, bonded by proximity and wary of doing anything subject to taunting by the group. That he spoke little English made him a target, and he struggled to fit in, cringing when he and his parents attended school functions and encountered classmates from English-speaking families.

“I didn’t want to go home and be Mexican,” he said. “We were called 'wetback' by kids with last names like Luna and Sandoval. ... It was a life I didn't want."

He even shunned his given name of Adalberto, approaching substitute teachers before class to note his presence, so they wouldn’t struggle with its pronunciation and elicit giggles from his classmates during roll call.

Though Albert and his brother tinkered with the violins and trumpets their dad encouraged them to learn, they ultimately wanted nothing to do with his beloved music. Albert would grimace as his father left for work in his traje or sat on the front porch listening to mariachi legends Javier Solis and Jose Alfredo Jimenez.

“We were being made fun of all the time,” he said.

He remembers confronting his father one day, asking why he listened to such music instead of something more contemporary, such as Guns N’ Roses or N.W.A.

“He said, ‘Because if I don’t know this music and somebody asks me for a song, I can’t play it, and I don’t get paid. And if I don’t get paid, we don’t eat.’”

As a kid, Albert shrugged it off – and it wasn’t until much later, as he began to raise his own family, that he came to appreciate his father’s path. When daughter Ariella was a toddler, her grandfather sang and played his trumpet for her, despite his worsening emphysema.

Leocadio Lopez died in 2007 at age 72, when she was 3.

After that, several things happened: Ariella announced, at age 4, that she wanted to learn the violin. In 2014, Mateo was born. Albert Lopez found himself embracing mariachi music with a fervor hungry to make up for lost time.

“It wasn’t something I was embarrassed about anymore,” he said.

A passion for music comes full circle

Mateo isn’t the youngest musical performer to be recognized by the Guinness World Records; that title belongs to an Indian boy who played tabla, or hand drums, in 2009 on an Indian radio station at age 3 years and five days. Mateo's isn’t the only mariachi-related record, either: In 2013, 700 mariachis played simultaneously at a festival in Guadalajara to take the title of world’s largest mariachi performance.

Still, those who've worked with Mateo rave about his potential, and Mateo said there is much more to learn: more songs, more guitar rhythms, more gritos – the howls that punctuate a mariachi performance.

“He’s probably my most gifted student,” said David Gonzalez, who conducts Mateo’s guitar lessons at the Music Institute of San Antonio. “He’s a sponge.”

Hernandez, the talent agent, has seen parents who want the dream more than the kids, regarding their child’s stardom as a meal ticket. That’s not the case with Mateo, she said.

“His parents are not typical Hollywood parents,” she said. “They’re humble and hardworking. They’re not the parents chasing the dream; they’re just advocating for his good.”

Sensing something special in Mateo, Hernandez in February introduced him to Nick Cooper, a vocal coach in Burbank, California, who’s helped train some of music’s biggest stars, including Kesha, Beyonce and Nicki Minaj.

Cooper said his job is to quickly gauge whether somebody has “it,” that special presence that can make someone a star.

“It’s rare that you get an opportunity to meet young kids who are as poised and prepared as Mateo,” he said. “I was just blown away.”

What distinguishes Mateo, he said, is that “he’s not just chasing what’s popular. What separates the good from the exceptional is that when the lights go on, the gift will just prove it all, and I think that happens with him. He just turns into the butterfly. Others go back into the cocoon.”

Whatever happens with Mateo’s career, his father said, will depend on Mateo.

“Anything he wants, any tools he needs, I’m going to make sure he has them until he decides he doesn’t want them anymore,” Albert Lopez said. “The day that comes, we’ll just have to pull the plug. It will be the most painful day of my life, but this needs to be organic.”

Though his own father tried to pass on his passion, Albert wasn’t ready; it’s a memory that still makes him emotional. That his children have embraced that passion, he said, helps fill the emptiness he felt when his father died – and he's touched by Mateo's affinity for the song Leocadio Lopez dearly loved.

México lindo y querido, si muero lejos de ti

Que digan que estoy dormido y que me traigan aquí

My beautiful beloved Mexico, if I should die far from you

Let them say I am sleeping and bring me back to you

Three of Leocadio's weathered sombreros hang in Mateo’s room.

“For me,” Albert said, “it’s like a redemption.”

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Mateo Lopez, world's youngest mariachi, has music in his blood