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Christmas in Mexico: not much rock, but great Mariachi opera

Patrick O’Heffernan.  Host, Music FridayLive!,

The Music Friday Live Radio team is back from its Christmas vacation in Mexico where we absorbed local culture and a little local music.  I say “a little ” because Christmas in Mexico – at least in Chapala, the lakeside town we were in which is about an hour’s drive from Guadalajara in the central mountains – is very quiet over Christmas.  School is out, families travel, bars and venues close. On Christmas Eve (Nochebuena) the local churches host a live Nativity celebration in which local children and their parents play the characters of the Christmas story – Jesus, Mary Joseph, the three kings, the angels. Live animals are also part of the scene, which began with a parade from the central plaza to the churchyard where the costumed children and their parents form tableaus, standing still for over an hour. After viewing the tableaus of various Christmas scenes, the village goes to mass. Family gatherings follow.

Also, “quiet” is a relative term because Mexicans love to celebrate everything, including Nochebuena, with fireworks and loud recorded music.  Live music is rare during the holiday week, but there are plenty of skyrockets, cherry bombs, and family dinners and parties, often spilling out onto the cobblestone streets with boom boxes or full-scale speaker systems.


Friday night in Tlaquepaque

Guadalajara is a different animal.  A young, rich, high tech, sprawling city/county of about 5 million, it is also the capital of the State of Jalisco. With low unemployment, a literacy rate of 98%, many local universities, and colleges spread out over  58 square miles crisscrossed by freeways, Guadalajara resembles LA in many ways, including a large number of music venues.  It also is the home of FIMPRO, the Latin Music Convention, hosted by the Universidad de Guadalajara which occupies multiple campuses around the city.

We headed for the Distrito Americana (named for the location of the American Consulate), clustered around Avenida Chapultepec which is lined with nightclubs, restaurants, music venues, hotels, museums, galleries, bars, and a theme park.  The 8-lane Avenida is divided by a wide, tree-lined median the center of which is filled on weekend nights with food and liquor stalls, strolling bands, line dances, and party goers. Many US and European-based bands play at the Guadalajara clubs along Chapultepec with names like CH3 Rooftop, Legends of Rock Video and Hudson’s.

Unfortunately, we were not able to rock out in the Chapultepec music scene because it was Christmas and most of the clubs were either closed or did not have bands.  So we took advantage of another of Guadalajara’s musical assets – Mariachi.

el parian outdoor mariachi

Mariachis at the El Parian in Guadalajara

There are disagreements over where Mariachi began.  Some say Mexico City, others say Chapala county or Guadalajara, others say it was already in the indigenous music when the Spaniards arrived and added European instruments.  My preference – with no evidence – is that modern Mariachi with the distinctive Charro outfits and sombreros started in the El Parian restaurant hall in the Tlaquepaque neighborhood of Guadalajara. El Parian is a sprawling indoor/outdoor food court with restaurants, a central stage, and roving Mariachi bands ranging from quartets to an all-female full band of over 20 musicians.

We decided to sample one of the offshoots of Mariachi – which has many offshoots, including rap, blues, and a Smiths/Morrissey Mariachi tribute band in LA – a Mariachi opera at one of Guadalajara’s landmark venues, Teatro Diana. We saw Cruzar la Cara de la Luna, a Spanish language  Mariachi opera about a Mexican man who travels north seeking work, and the family he leaves behind. The opera itself was preceded by an hour-long set of multiple Mariachi bands –50 players in all – who each performed separately and then wove their music together with male and female tenors and sopranos.

Cruzar la Cara de la Luna is the first opera written for Mariachi by Pepe Martínez and Leonard Foglia and commissioned by the Houston Grand Opera.  At its peak there were 60 artists on stage in the Teatro including Mexico’s renowned Mariachi Nuevo Tecalitlán and Mariachi Juvenil de mi Tierra. The story was heart-wrenching but very topical and received a standing ovation.

mariachi opera. final scene

Final scene from Cruzar la Cara de la Luna

Back in Chapala the next day and still looking for music I was introduced to Gary Trego, pedal steel guitarist with the band Tall Boys, a classic western/rock band formed by a group of A-list players and sidemen who met each other in Chapala and now make their home in various villages around Lake Chapala.  I was not able to catch one of their gigs – missed it by a day and left before the next one – but Trego pulled up a recent video, On Your Own,  that they produced to memorialize a number of musicians who have passed on.  I promised next visit I would coordinate with their performance schedule, and of course, the lineups in Guadalajara.  But now, we are back in La La Land and heading for the clubs.



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About Patrick O'Heffernan, Music Sin Fronteras (428 Articles)
Patrick O’Heffernan, PhD., is a music journalist based in Mexico, with a global following. He focuses on music in English and Spanish that combines rock and rap, blues and jazz and pop with music from Latin America, especially Mexico like cumbia, banda, son jarocho, and mariachi. He is also edits a local news website and is a subeditor of a local Spanish language newspaper. Check out his weekly column Music Sin Frontera on Sunday nights.

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