• Story alerts
  • Letter to Editor
  • Pin it

The repertoire, too, was staggering — an estimated 2000 songs. In his thesis, Fogelquist relates the story of Carlos Pacheco, a young vihuela player in Mariachi Internacional who devoted three hours a day for an entire year to learning compositions that had been requested that he didn’t know. During Fogelquist’s own extended periods of apprenticeship with the group, he could keep up with only the names of some 25 percent of the songs requested; “remembering melodies, chords, and verses was beyond me.”

Fogelquist sought out mariachis working north of the border, too, studying and playing with, among others, the Vaqueros at the Carioca Restaurant in East L.A. One night, a woman named Ina Nyul — “I am morena,” she says, or dark, “but my father was Hungarian” — traveled north from Agua Prieta on vacation and ate in the Carioca.

She noticed, as so many did, the blond mariachi. “It was a nice novelty,” she says. “My friend and I were sitting down, and my friend was saying in Spanish, ‘Who is this important mariachi guy?’ and Mark said, ‘No, they’ — he pointed to the Mexican players — ‘they are the important mariachis.’”

“The owner of the place introduced us,” Nyul says, and their courtship began.

The scenes that led Fogelquist from here to Chula Vista can be arranged into a series of images and regarded as if through that perfect lens of the 1970’s, the 3-D View-Master:

In 1973, Mariachi Uclatlán is hired to play for Sunday brunch every weekend at the Los Angeles Airport Marriott. The band members are smiling in their trajes de charro because the Marriott pays union scale and their customers are spreading the word, hiring the group for private parties of every kind.

In 1975, Ina Nyul weds Mark Fogelquist, who like each member of his band is making $20,000 a year, which is $6000 more than Fogelquist’s younger brother James, who has a PhD from Yale, is paid to teach at Mt. Holyoke College.

Within two years, Mark and Ina can buy a house with mariachi money, and in 1978, Mark drops his pursuit of a PhD.

In 1981, the two Fogelquist brothers, Mark and James, stand in front of a Mexican restaurant in Orange that they’ve bought after forming a corporation with six members of the former Mariachi Uclatlán. They look nervous, for good reason. From their pooled resources of $72,000, they have $80 left.

The next slide shows a line of customers out the door and into the parking lot of El Mariachi Restaurant and Bar.

Jump to a weary pair of Fogelquist brothers 12 years later. From 1981 to 1993, they have unlocked the restaurant at 10:00 in the morning, dressed as managers. For 12 years, they have slipped into the back room at 8:00 p.m. and changed, like violin superheroes, into their trajes de charro. For 12 years, they have also played 200 private parties per year.

In 1993, the sign in front of the restaurant says “Sold.” The brother who was a professor becomes a professor again, and Mark Fogelquist becomes a middle school teacher for native speakers of Spanish in Wenatchee, Washington.

The slide that now clicks into place could easily have been taken in Chula Vista but was snapped in Wenatchee in 1995. In the picture, three kids whose parents have moved to Wenatchee from rural Mexico to pick apples are standing at the Wenatchee airport. They don’t have suitcases because they don’t have enough possessions to fill one. They’re out of their minds with excitement. They’re traveling with Mr. Fogelquist to see 700 musicians and the greatest mariachi group in the world, Mariachi Vargas, at a conference in Albuquerque.

“At first,” Fogelquist says, “I didn’t want to hear another mariachi song. But I had these kids all day long. They asked about what I’d done. I brought in my violin, pictures of my group, CDs. For Cinco de Mayo that first year, I got the kids together, we rehearsed after school, and we did two songs. The Mexican parents were there, and the place went bananas.”

So the school decided to add a mariachi class to the curriculum. “They told me I had to get at least 15 students.”

The day the class started, he had 47.

Fogelquist asked them in Spanish, “How many of you have ever played a musical instrument?”

Only one kid raised a hand.

How am I going to do this? Fogelquist thought. But the custodian found about 20 guitars that had been sitting in a warehouse for ten years. “We put strings on them, cleaned them up, and brought them into class at the end of the first week.” Fogelquist owned a guitarrón, a vihuela, and a violin, but he was still short. He had 24 instruments and 47 kids. He sat the class down and said, “What are we going to do?”

The boys and girls in the room were from traditional villages in Mexico where boys did one thing and the girls did another.

The boys told Fogelquist, “We’re going to play the guitar.”

The girls said, “We’ll sing.”

So that’s what they did. As happens now in Chula Vista, two or three of his students were innately talented. “What took other kids a week to learn, they learned in four minutes. They would be in my classroom every day after school. I couldn’t go home.”

At the end of October, the principal came to Fogelquist and said, ‘Could you do a performance?’

“We only know two songs,” Fogelquist said.

“It doesn’t matter,” the principal said. This was a parent meeting for the migrant workers whose kids were in the school, and normally only nine or ten parents showed up. That night, however, the room was packed. One hundred and twenty parents funneled in.

“These parents,” Fogelquist says, “were right out of the field. Mud on their boots or huaraches. The humblest of the humble. They went crazy. They said, ‘Otra! Otra!’”

I said, “There isn’t another one. That’s all we know!”

  • Story alerts
  • Letter to Editor
  • Pin it

More from SDReader


obdan Feb. 9, 2011 @ 9:43 p.m.

Bravo! Thank you Reader, for printing such an amazing article. And thank you Laura McNeal, for writing it. What a beautiful and uplifting story. The vibrant enthusiasm, absolute dedication, and radiant spirit of everyone involved with this story rang out as loud and as clear as I can easily imagine does this groups music. I now hope to one day hear it as well.


vquezada Feb. 10, 2011 @ 8 p.m.

excellent interview, and congrats for Mark for this great program, my family have been enjoying this mariachi for 10 years now and plan to continue to support them. this mariachi is number one in southern California.


MikeA Feb. 15, 2011 @ 1:30 p.m.

That is the best story I've ever read in the Reader.


Sign in to comment

Win a $25 Gift Card to
The Broken Yolk Cafe

Join our newsletter list

Each newsletter subscription means another chance to win!