From left: S.O.Y. Mariachi teacher Del Carmona on the guitarron, Briana Loya and her sister Ivon, founder and director of Mariachi Las Alazanas, on vihuelas. (Tess Townsend photo)
When Ivon Loya, 19, saw all-female mariachi group Buena Aventura perform at Cielo Grande last April, she was taken with the group.
So inspired she was, the Eastern New Mexico University-Roswell student decided to start her own all-female band to play mariachi, a folk music with roots in the Mexican state of Jalisco.
“There wasn’t a group here like that,” she said.
She put up posters around ENMU-R seeking band members and enlisted her two sisters, a cousin and friends to join.
By May, Mariachi Las Alazanas was formed. The group has 11 members.
The formation of the group is the culmination of almost a decade of commitment to music for Loya.
She began playing guitar at age 10 when she enrolled in classes at mariachi school S.O.Y. Mariachi. The school offers free classes taught by volunteer teachers and provides its students with scholarships after they finish high school.
S.O.Y. Mariachi director Bobby Villegas said, “She’s got a lot of talent.”
At 17, Loya picked up the vihuela, a small five-string instrument that is played similarly to a guitar, but has a higher pitch. She now also studies the violin, which she plays in Las Alazanas.
“I’m the type of person who likes to try new instruments,” she said.
Her affinity for music surprised her parents, who said they never expected their daughter’s passion to lead to her forming her own group.
Her father, Luis, who drives a shuttle in Dexter, said he was even more surprised to see his other two daughters join the group. The young women had never shown interest in music before, he said.
He gushed with pride over seeing the participation of his children in music, saying that his mother and uncles had all been musicians in his home state of Chihuahua, Mexico.
He said he was proud of Ivon.
“We’re happy she’s doing this,” he said.
Forming an all-female mariachi group has its own special set of challenges. Sandra Martinez, musical director for Las Alazanas, pointed out that a lot of mariachi music is written in keys more suitable for men.
“Most of these songs are for males, for male voices, so they’re very low—let’s say in baritone key—and most of these girls are altos or sopranos,” Martinez said.
She said she tries to find songs in a proper key for the band members’ voices and sometimes converts the keys of the music.
Martinez taught violin for S.O.Y. when Loya started classes there, and the two have known each other since that time.
[Disclosure: Martinez works as a graphic artist at the Roswell Daily Record.]
Female mariachis are now common in the U.S. according to Loya.
However, that wasn’t always the case. “Mariachi Queen” Laura Sobrino, of California, is credited with popularizing all-female mariachi bands. The violinist founded the first all-female band in the country, Mariachi Reyna de Los Angeles, in the 1990s.
Loya said she hopes her band will inspire young girls to pick up instruments and play.
According to Villegas, she is already spreading music by agreeing to teach the vihuela to two 12-year-old girls at S.O.Y.
Loya said she ultimately hopes to attend music school, after she graduates ENMU-R with a degree in phlebotomy this spring. She wants to make a career out of playing mariachi.
Mariachi Las Alazanas will have their first performance Nov. 17, a 10-hymn Catholic Mass at Iglesia de la Inmaculada Concepcion in Dexter.
The members of Las Alazanas are as follows: Karen Loya, Briana Loya, Mayela Jimenez, Regina Saldana, Sirena Madrid, Jeanette Olivas, Liana Perez, Cassandra Najera and Gabriela Chavez.
“I just want to thank the girls for being part of this band. I couldn’t have done it without them,” Loya said.
Among all the members, there are five violins, two trumpets, two guitarrones, a guitar and a vihuela.
Each band member is expected to practice at least one hour a day in addition to group rehearsals once or twice a week, according to Martinez.
Loya’s mother, Elizabeth, who works for Leprino, said that at first she wasn’t sure the band would be successful.
“I was worried about it. ‘How are you going to do it?’ But now that they have it all together, it’s working,” she said.
Elizabeth’s sister-in-law Nancy Grajada, an accountant in Roswell, said she never had any doubts about her niece.
“You could see it in her eyes—she was gonna go for it,” she said. “…I’m glad she took that plunge.”