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Omaha Magazine

Unity Through Music: Mariachi Zapata's Cultural Preservation and Education

Oct 05, 2020 10:17AM ● By Virginia Kathryn Gallner
Ramon Hernandez of Mariachi Zapata

Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Ramon Hernandez named his band Mariachi Zapata after Emiliano Zapata, a heroic figure from the Mexican Revolution. Founded in 1989, the group’s first performance was on May 13, 1990. They were the second mariachi group in the city. 

“Some think it is an organization of just performers, and we have fun. What we really are [doing] is keeping the culture alive—the Mexican culture, Chicano culture.”

Originally, they were part of Cuicacalli Centro de Arte at 24th and N streets, an arts center founded by Martin Ramirez in 1989 and dedicated to people of color. The center encompassed all disciplines, including music, theater, performing arts, and visual arts.

“We built a bridge between North Omaha and South Omaha,” Hernandez said. 

His uncles—Beto, Alfredo, and Rito Gonzales—were members of one of the first mariachi music trios in Omaha in the '50s and '60s and they played a significant role in Ramón's Mexican/chicano music roots, education, and cultural preservation. Now, as the leader of Mariachi Zapata, Ramon wants to create a similar intergenerational atmosphere.

“One of our reasons for being is to keep the culture alive, keep the music alive,” he said. “My push is to have any members [who] join us [to] have two things: they have to be able to sing some of the songs, and they have to be able to learn an instrument, and before they can leave, they have to teach somebody else the traditional mariachi music and culture.”

Playing with Zapata has been a profound experience for Alex Schmer, an upright bass player who moonlights on guitar for the group. “Being classically trained, immersing myself into mariachi was a complete shock. I was taught purely by ear, which is the norm for most mariacheros…[it has] everything to do with experiencing the moment.” 

Learning mariachi music by ear is no small challenge. Hernandez said they could probably perform for six hours without repeating a single tune  or using sheet music. 

“Putting on the suit brings with it a sense of pride and community,” said trumpet player Jimmy Cuadros, another member of Mariachi Zapata’s younger generation. 

Zapata features a wide range of traditional instrumentation. Hernandez plays the guitarron, a guitar that’s eight inches deep, which provides the bass foundation for the music. The guitarron’s original partners in mariachi music were the vihuela and the folk harp. One of the most characteristic sounds of mariachi today is the trumpet, which did not arrive until the 1920s. 

Over 500 years ago, the mariachi tradition started as a trio or quartet playing at festivals, weddings, baptisms, and quinceañeras. According to Hernandez, at the time, the Catholic Church thought they were pagan musicians. To this day, some Orthodox Catholic churches do not allow mariachis to perform at Mass. This history is still relatively unknown—even on college campuses.

After graduating with his bachelor’s degree in music, Hernandez was asked to give a mariachi presentation for a world music class at University of Nebraska at Omaha. In preparation for the class, he was given a textbook to follow. He did not find a single page in the book about mariachi. Instead, he wrote his own curriculum, initiating his teaching career.

He presented this curriculum to the principal of Marrs Magnet Middle School and was granted funding to continue. This school is especially important, he said, because the majority of the students are Mexicano, Chicano, and Latino.

Over the past two decades, while on the Bellas Artes, Inc. (former nonprofit arts organization) board, Hernandez worked to bring world-class mariachi musicians to Omaha for workshops, master classes, and performances. Mariachi Los Camperos de Nati Cano, a group representing the Smithsonian Institute, taught a weekend class, and Mariachi Cobre, the band in residence at Disney World, performed at the Orpheum Theater. They also offered intensive workshops for dedicated musicians. Recording vocalist Nydia Rojas held a master class in partnership with the South Omaha Arts Institute.

As part of his educational initiatives, Hernandez also gives back to the community through nonprofit work. He serves on the board of directors at Arts for All, a nonprofit dedicated to providing arts education for adults and children of all experience levels. For about seven years, he has hosted a mariachi class focused on music history and appreciation. Until this year, he collaborated with their executive director, Judy Mallory, who passed away in June. 

He served on the grant review board of the Nebraska Arts Council from 1984 to 1990, pushing for multicultural grants. He felt there was a lack of representation on the boards of nonprofit organizations at the time. “It took some hard advocacy work just to get these folks to say it’s all right,” he said. “[Then] everyone started to apply for multicultural grants.”

Mariachi Zapata has been nominated for four Omaha Entertainment and Arts Awards, winning Best World Music in 2018. This Mother’s Day, Mariachi Zapata celebrated their 30th year as a group, and they are still going strong.

“Music lets you perfectly unify any lives that participate,” Schmer said of the mariachi tradition. In Mariachi Zapata, that reaches past many boundaries, bringing generations together. 

Visit facebook.com/MariachiZapataOmaha for more information.

This article first appeared in the October 2020 issue of Omaha Magazine. Click here to subscribe to the print edition.

Editor's note: The print version of this story states that Hernandez's uncles in the mariachi group were Mauricio and Erasmo Hernandez. They were Beto, Alfredo, and Rito Gonzales. This online version has been updated with that information.