This is a love story. It begins in Guadalajara and is rekindled four times a day in room 1204 of Chula Vista High, a setting that is not romantic. The windows of the band room, which used to be the auto shop, are coated with grime so thick it could be the same grime from when it was the auto shop nine years ago. The interior walls are snaked with cords like varicose veins.
“Perform: IN TUNE,” urges a sign. “Perform: IN RHYTHM. Perform: IN HISTORICAL STYLE.” Pedro Infante and Jorge Negrete, patron saints of mariachi, smile down from their posters at Woody Woodpecker gel-spiked hair, frayed jeans, and T-shirts that say “Michael Jackson King of Pop.” They smile upon the black gum in the carpet, the battered cupboards, violins, trumpets, backpacks, and guitars.
After tuning their instruments, the students sing intervals (“one, THREE, one,” “one, FIVE, one,” “one, THREE, one,”) to warm up their voices because mariachis sing/play, sing/play as if switching from one galloping horse to another.
“One FOUR one.” The hollow, wooden vihuelas, guitarrones, and guitars have been cracked, mended with Scotch tape, and cracked again. One trumpeter has forgotten his valve oil again. The mariachis in training are tired because zero period, the class before this one, started at 6:35 a.m., and it’s now 7:40. But, “one, EIGHT, one,” they sing in unison, their elastic voices flying from middle C to high C and back again as a blond man with a mustache thumps out scales on an electronic keyboard.
El Güero, “the blond guy,” as he was called when he was a professional mariachi, does not look tired. The middle and high school students who match their voices to his all day have black hair and dark eyes in a room, a school, and a region where most people have black hair and dark eyes. But El Güero has blue eyes, the un-Mexican name of Mark Fogelquist, and a medal somewhere in his office or house (he never showed it to me or even mentioned it) called the Reconocimiento Ohtli, the highest award of the Mexican government for individuals contributing to the well-being of Mexicans abroad.
How did this happen?
“We call him the Yoda of Mariachi,” says Diamante Consuelo Cintrón, age 17. She executes a little bow, as if doing obeisance to the master.
“His commitment is total,” says Jilanie Desert, also 17.
“I knew who he was before I had actually met him,” says Karla Díaz, a 19-year-old alumnus of Fogelquist’s high school performing group, Mariachi Chula Vista. She thought it was odd, she admits, that he was not Mexican. “But I heard them play and I knew I wanted to be in that group. It didn’t matter to me. The proof is in the pudding.”
In July of 1961, Mark Fogelquist was 13 and spending the summer against his will in Guadalajara. His father, a Swedish-American from the Pacific Northwest, was a professor of Spanish at UCLA who traveled to Spain, Puerto Rico, and Mexico during sabbaticals and semesters abroad. It was his fault, in other words, that Mark was not playing Little League but standing beside a platform where a mariachi band in full costume was performing at the start of the Guadalajara summer session.
As often happens at 13, Fogelquist fell in love.
“That was it,” he says 49 years later. “It was the coolest thing I’d ever heard in my life.”
It was not the first time he’d heard the violin, but it was the first time he’d heard it played that way, because Pacific Palisades, where he played in his school orchestra, was 98 percent white. He didn’t know what to call the feeling — alegría, joy, elation — but for the rest of the summer, Fogelquist sought out mariachi bands and absorbed the language he hadn’t spoken since second grade, when his father’s work took them to Puerto Rico. When he returned to Pacific Palisades, the music vanished again.
“From the time I was in ninth grade until I went to UCLA, I didn’t hear a single note of mariachi music,” he says. “There was a six-year gap.”
UCLA, however, was the one place in the world that had a formal mariachi class in 1965. Fogelquist joined the performing group, Mariachi Uclatlán, and found it had no ethnic requirements. “We were all white,” he says. “Well, not white, but there were no Mexicans in the mariachi group when I started. The guy that played the guitarrón was a court musician from Indonesia. We had a Chinese violinist.”
For Fogelquist, the only thing better than listening to mariachi was playing it. He finished his undergraduate degree and started in on a master’s. The director of the program put him in charge of Mariachi Uclatlán.
“They still hired a professional mariachi from Mexico who was the ethnic advisor,” he says, but Fogelquist enrolled the students and gave them grades and organized everything. “I really got into it, and got excited about it.”
Fogelquist doubled the group’s practice time, held rehearsals during Christmas, Easter, and summer vacation, and the Anglo-Indonesian-Chinese-polyglot mariachis started to get freelance jobs or chambas. Members of the group, instead of leaving at semester’s end, played on. By this time, Fogelquist says, they weren’t students. They were fanatics.
For Fogelquist, this meant doing research for a master’s thesis called “Rhythm and Form in the Contemporary Son Jalisciense,” in which he would explain how notes from the Western high-art tradition had been harnessed by itinerant musicians living from Guadalajara to San José in states of poverty not outwardly conducive to joy and used to express unremitting joy.
The group he joined in Mexico, for example, operated on a piece-work basis. Mariachi Internacional performed at Carnitas Uruapan near the Caliente Race Track in Tijuana, where they were required by the dueño — who paid them nothing — to be in service six days a week from 1:00 p.m. until 9:00 p.m., after which time another group was in service until dawn. Both groups earned $2 a song playing the requests of American tourists, young men, couples, working women, and families. Weekdays brought fewer customers, rainy or cold weather fewer still, and Lent least of all. Breaks were staggered so that the group never stopped playing; while one musician slipped off to the men’s room or to eat dinner, the band played on.