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Pod Corner: 'A People's History of Kansas City'

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

Mariachi music has a long, rich history. It's one that has many male heroes, but that is not who we're going to talk about today. Suzanne Hogan of member station KCUR has the story of a group of women who carved out their own place in the genre. She digs into it in the podcast, "A People's History Of Kansas City." Take a listen.

SUZANNE HOGAN, BYLINE: Mariachi music is deep and heartfelt. It's the music of Mexico. And for a short stint during the 1980s, Mariachi Estrella, a group of seven trailblazing women in Kansas, were a force who broke the mold in a male-dominated music scene.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARIACHI ESTRELLA: (Singing in Spanish).

CHRISTINA LOYA: Women took this deeply patriarchal institution and kind of created their own space in it.

HOGAN: Christina Loya wrote her thesis about Mariachi Estrella. It's about her great-aunts, who played in the group, and about other women in her family, how gender roles and expectations have shifted throughout generations of Mexican American women's lives and how Mariachi Estrella was a part of this shift.

LOYA: Even in mariachi music, it's very masculine, and these women came in and disrupted that, you know? Whether intentionally or not, it's very subversive and very powerful.

HOGAN: It all started in a neighborhood in Topeka, Kan., called Oakland, home to a large and vibrant Mexican American population for generations. The neighborhood got its start at the turn of the 20th century, when a large wave of Mexican immigrants started coming into eastern Kansas due to political and economic upheaval caused by the Mexican Revolution. At its center point is Our Lady of Guadalupe Church, where Mariachi Estrella first started as a choir group in the late 1970s. Violin player Teresa Cuevas had just divorced and was in her 50s at the time.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

TERESA CUEVAS: The music was a part of me that made me feel like myself.

HOGAN: Cuevas spoke to KCUR in an interview in 2006 with other surviving members, Rachel Galvan Sangalang and Isabel “Bolie” Gonzalez.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

ISABEL BOLIE GONZALEZ: I never heard anybody saying, let's start an all-female - it just happened that all of us that were in the choir were female.

HOGAN: In 1980, a few choir members attended a mariachi convention in San Antonio, Texas, and that sparked the official flames, said Sangalang.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

RACHEL GALVAN SANGALANG: We called it mariachi fever that we caught when we came back. It's mariachi fever. I guess you either love it, or, you know, it's - just happened to strike a chord with us.

HOGAN: Other members included Rachel's sister, Dolores Galvan, Isabel Gonzalez's cousin, Dolores Gonzalez Carmona, and Linda Scurlock, the only non-Mexican in the group, who played the trumpet. She also, like founder Teresa Cuevas, was recently divorced.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

T CUEVAS: And she said, you guys saved my life. And she started writing music for us. She had two little boys. She was so happy being a part of the mariachi.

HOGAN: The women of Mariachi Estrella had a lot of fun together in those days. Their band was like a family.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

T CUEVAS: All the women, I think - I felt that they were very - they were women that knew what they wanted.

HOGAN: They practiced hard, sounded good and were getting more and more confident and getting asked to play more shows. Their performances were joyous affairs, and they often brought their family along.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

HOGAN: But the band had been playing together for less than two years when tragedy hit. On July 17, 1981, Mariachi Estrella was invited to play at the new Hyatt Regency Hotel in Kansas City, Mo. The band was on their way to change into their costumes. But as Mariachi Estrella was walking across the second-story skywalk, the skywalk above them collapsed.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: That first skywalk fell on another below, and then they both fell to the floor. All of that occurred in just a matter of seconds. Most of the dead were either on the skywalks or dancing on the floor below.

HOGAN: The Hyatt Regency disaster remains one of the deadliest accidental structural building failures in United States history, injuring more than 200 people and killing 114. Among them were four members of the group Mariachi Estrella - Connie “Chae” Alcala, Dolores Gonzalez Carmona, Dolores Galvan and Linda Scurlock.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

GONZALEZ: My daughter will tell you she saved my life.

HOGAN: Member Isabel "Bolie" Gonzalez, who lost her sister, cousin and friends that day, says she was nursing her daughter at the time, so she didn't go to any jobs outside of town. So she wasn't there. Rachel Galvan Sangalang and Teresa Cuevas were there that day and ended up trapped in the rubble.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

T CUEVAS: I said, Padre Santo, ayudame. And then all of a sudden, a man said, she's alive. There's a live one. And I grabbed his hand, and they dragged me out of there.

HOGAN: This interview took place in 2006, more than two decades after the Hyatt Regency collapsed. But you can hear how deeply traumatic and life-changing the experience was for all of them. Their band mates who were lost that day were trailblazing women, and they were also mothers, sisters, daughters, educators, dedicated community leaders, friends.

LOYA: Obviously, very traumatic for the family.

HOGAN: Cristina Loya lost her great-aunt and cousin.

LOYA: So shortly before her death, Connie "Chae" was asked about what being part of Mariachi Estrella meant to her, and she said, it's in my heart. I just want to see it carried on. I don't want it to die out.

HOGAN: Loya believes research like hers is a crucial part of keeping her aunt's dream alive.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

T CUEVAS: I felt that God had saved me, and he had saved me so I could be a better mother. And after that, I devoted myself to my family.

HOGAN: Teresa Cuevas was badly injured in the accident, but as soon as she was healed, she immediately started playing for the church again. The other members also continued to play there and eventually spun off to play with different mariachi groups. But Teresa Cuevas held on to the name Mariachi Estrella and focused on passing mariachi music to her grandchildren.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

T CUEVAS: And nowadays girls have - you know, they can aspire to do whatever they want to, my granddaughters.

HOGAN: Teresa Cuevas passed away in 2013 at the age of 93 years old, and her family says she played her violin and loved music all the way until the end. And Cristina Loya is far from the only person keeping the spirit of this group alive. Other descendants are doing so with their music.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARIA THE MEXICAN: (Singing in Spanish).

MARIA ELENA CUEVAS: My name is Maria Elena Cuevas, and I front the band Maria The Mexican. And that band is inspired by my time in the mariachi band with my grandmother, Mariachi Estrella.

HOGAN: Maria and her sister Teresa, who goes by Tess, are both named after their grandmother, whose full name was Maria Teresa Alonso Cuevas (ph). The sisters both started playing with Mariachi Estrella as kids. Maria played the vihuela, and her sister Tess, like her grandmother, played the violin.

M CUEVAS: So my sister and I always joke we weren't asked. We were just simply told what we would do. Looking back, I'm really grateful for that. But I started performing in my grandmother's mariachi band at the age of 11.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EL CASCABEL")

MARIA THE MEXICAN: (Singing in Spanish).

HOGAN: This is Maria The Mexican performing the traditional song, "El Cascabel," which was one of her grandmother's favorites. Maria says she still gets goosebumps every time they play it. She hopes that others will be inspired by her grandma's story - a woman who started an all-female mariachi band later in her life, overcame a major tragedy and just kept going.

M CUEVAS: So it's like it's never too late.

HOGAN: Marisol Chavez is another descendant who's trying to share that inspiration with younger generations.

MARISOL CHAVEZ: I'm a product coming from these women.

HOGAN: It was her great-aunt, member Isabel “Bolie” Gonzalez, who is still alive, who encouraged her at a young age to start playing music at Our Lady of Guadalupe Church in the Oakland neighborhood where she grew up. That's where she taught herself different instruments. Later in college, she was at a crossroads in her life, not really sure what she should be pursuing.

CHAVEZ: And then I was like, you know what? No, I really want to be doing music.

HOGAN: Now she's a professional musician, performing in the group Mariachi Habanero, and she's a music teacher in the Oakland neighborhood, where she teaches all of her students about Mariachi Estrella.

CHAVEZ: Growing up in this neighborhood, a lot of my students and a lot of just musicians in the area didn't know about Mariachi Estrella. So it's been, like, a goal and a mission of mine to, like, make sure that I tell my students about mariachi music, about Mariachi Estrella, so that they're aware.

HOGAN: As more and more family members, friends and fans have taken up that responsibility to spread the story inspired by these women, in some ways, it's a lot like mariachi music itself. It both serves as the background and center point for so many types of life events - from weddings, baptisms, funerals, church services, fiestas of all kinds. It's happy and sad. It can mean whatever it needs to mean to the individual in any moment. But at its core and best, it's meant to be shared.

DETROW: Suzanne Hogan is the host of "A People's History Of Kansas City." You can hear the full episode on Mariachi Estrella at kcur.org.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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