The other day in Guadalajara, Mexico, the government and its cultural representatives accepted a unique recognition from a major world body.

Mexico formally accepted the designation that mariachi music is a precious cultural legacy, a world patrimony, which must be preserved and promoted. UNESCO, the cultural and educational arm of the United Nations, last year had declared mariachi music as the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

This is great news for mariachi music, its participants and fans around the world.

Here in Tucson, however, it's not news at all.

We've been promoting and preserving mariachi music for more than 50 years. Mariachi music is as much a cultural treasure as here as in Mexico. Maybe even more so.

"For people in Mexico, for people in the Southwest and especially for people in Tucson, what's the big news?" said Randy Carrillo, a longtime Tucson mariachi and member of Tucson-born Mariachi Cobre which is based in Florida at Disney World's Epcot Center.

Mariachi music evolved in Mexico from local traditional folk rhythms and in the 1930s began to take the familiar shape of violin, trumpet, guitar, vihuela, a small five-string guitar, and guitarrón, a six-string bass guitar. The music took off as radio and movies in Mexico began to include mariachi music in its productions.

But as early as the mid-1950s in Tucson, local musicians adopted mariachi. One of the first known ensembles was Mariachi Tucsonense comprising Tony Garcia, Conrado Valles, Gustavo Nuñez, Jesús Medina, Geraldo Hernandez, Ramon Lopez, Alfredo Nuñez and Carlos Saldivar Sr.

Even before Mariachi Tucsonense was formed, Tucson-born Eduardo "Lalo" Guerrero was presenting a form of mariachi music in Southern California.

In 1964 mariachi music worldwide achieved a landmark step. A Tucson youth mariachi group, Los Changuitos Feos, was created. Still active, Los Changuitos are considered the first youth mariachi in the U.S. and Mexico. The original seven are Cosme Barcelo Jr., George Norton, Robert Bourland, Jerry Gay, Keith Hungate, Charlie Anthony and Gilbert Velez.

In 1983 the Tucson International Mariachi Conference was born, the second of its kind in the United States. The conference remains alive.

With Tucson as mariachi's fertile ground, the music spread throughout the Southwest. In Tucson more youth mariachis blossomed in the public schools, most notably Mariachi Las Aguilitas of Davis Bilingual Magnet School, under the direction of Alfredo Valenzuela.

As the young mariachis grew older, more mariachi groups were born in Tucson. Additionally, Tucson mariachis went elsewhere and created mariachis and mariachi school programs, like former Changuito Jeff Nevin who created a mariachi program in Chula Vista, Calif.

Additionally, Tucson-born singer Linda Ronstadt, granddaughter of Sonora-born Tucson pioneer Federico José María Ronstadt, gave mariachi a global boost with her 1987 mariachi-fueled "Canciones de Mi Padre."

Mariachi today is heard worldwide and remains as Mexico's musical soul. The UNESCO designation solidifies the music's role in defining Mexico's cultural legacy.

"It's important because recognition has been bestowed on mariachi music on a worldwide platform," said Carrillo, who began performing with Los Changuitos Feos in 1967 and since 1971 with Mariachi Cobre.

The designation, however, will not serve its full purpose unless it is talked about and taught, said John Contreras, who has been the musical director of Mariachi Aztlán of Pueblo High School for 10 years.

He added, "The designation may not mean something to the students today, but when they get older they'll realize the special place mariachi music holds in the world."

Ernesto "Neto" Portillo Jr. is editor of La Estrella de Tucsón. He can be reached at (520) 573-4187 or at

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