How mariachi culture pulled at the heartstrings of MLB beyond Cinco de Mayo
Mariachi music blared between innings at Alfredo Harp Helu Stadium last weekend as the San Diego Padres swept the San Francisco Giants during the two-game Mexico City Series. The festive sights and sounds were fitting, given the series marked MLB’s first trek to Mexico since 2019.
North of the border, Major League stadiums experience similar scenes during festivities for Cinco de Mayo — commemorating Mexico’s military victory over French troops in the Battle of Puebla on May 5, 1862 — with mariachi music playing a big part. The Chicago Cubs, Boston Red Sox, Giants and Washington Nationals, among others, have hosted bands on the date.
More recently, teams and players are singing a similar tune on a more regular basis throughout the season and in various circumstances off the field in their efforts to connect to their Latino fan bases and roots.
In Southern California, the Los Angeles Dodgers, who have long enjoyed a dedicated following from fans with Mexican ties on both sides of the border, have built up a burgeoning tradition with various musical groups in the region.
“I’ve always loved bringing Mexican music to the people, and just imagine doing it [in a place] like Dodger Stadium,” said singer Julian Torres, who first performed there in 2021. “It’s always such a great pleasure to sing for that crowd.”
During that postseason, Torres stirred Dodgers fans during Game 5 of the National League Championship Series against the Atlanta Braves with a rendition of the late Mexican ranchera singer Vicente Fernandez’s iconic hit “Volver, Volver,” a ballad about a longing to return to the arms of a lost love. After a few bars, the singer and his band had a large chunk of the 51,363 in attendance crooning along.
The performance was so successful that the team brought Torres back on more than one occasion the next season. Last May, he and Mariachi Cenzontle performed both the U.S. and Mexico national anthems. In July, he serenaded fans at the MLB All-Star Game, also held at Dodger Stadium.
“It’s a great honor, to do what I do and have it be so well-received by the public,” Torres said. “It’s very gratifying. I love to do it.”
Dodgers pitcher Joe Kelly, whose mother is Mexican-American, wore a mariachi jacket to the White House on Friday.
He got the jacket earlier in the week after asking a musician from a mariachi band if he’d trade for a jersey.
(Via @redturn2, @mgarijc, @ashleynicokelly) pic.twitter.com/iuvB4BkWxa
— ESPN (@espn) July 3, 2021
The Dodgers have been the most visible franchise to merge mariachi culture and baseball. After winning the 2020 World Series, former reliever Joe Kelly famously wore a mariachi jacket to the White House the following summer. Kelly, whose mother is Mexican American, received the jacket from Grover Castro, a trumpeter for Mariachi Garibaldi — another group invited by the Dodgers to play Chavez Ravine.
“They’re beautiful pieces of work with outstanding embroidery on it, outstanding fabric on it,” Kelly told reporters in 2021, adding he initially didn’t plan on wearing the jacket to the White House. “It was one of those things like, ‘I should try this on to see if it fits.’ I tried it on after the game and thought, ‘Man, this fits great.'”
Other teams are also employing mariachi bands beyond one or two occasions per season. On selected home dates, the Texas Rangers host Mariachi Mondays, featuring a full band on display. Musicians play both on the stadium pavilion at Globe Life Field during pregame and within a designated area above the field between innings. Fans are encouraged to sing along and even take pictures with the band, whose outfits are adorned with the Rangers logo.
“It plays a huge factor in keeping the cultural heritage, you know, alive here, especially in [Dallas-Fort Worth],” Roger Martinez, who played for Mariachi de los Texas Rangers, told Dallas TV station WFAA-TV in 2022. “Man, when there’s a mariachi anywhere, everybody is happy.”
By most accounts, mariachi music originated in the late 19th century in the western Mexican state of Jalisco. Its style evolved from the traditional folk music popular at the time to a more encompassing genre that incorporated musical styles from other parts of Mexico and beyond. The distinctive uniforms were inspired by the traditional charro costumes worn by horse riders dating to Mexico’s time as a Spanish colony. The combination of this distinctive look and the unmistakable musical sounds produces one the most iconic representations of Mexican culture.
In 2011, UNESCO added mariachi music to its list of Intangible Cultural Heritage, noting its popularity and expansion beyond Mexican borders. The genre has inspired formations in places as far-flung as Croatia and Egypt. Each year, an International Mariachi Festival is held in Guadalajara, hosting groups from countries all over the world.
In the U.S., high school mariachi bands in Texas compete in a contest sanctioned by the same organization that governs football and other sports. Groups can be found most anywhere in the country, formed with musicians of diverse heritages.
While preparing for this year’s World Baseball Classic, Team Mexico outfielder Alex Verdugo regaled his Red Sox teammates at spring training in Fort Myers, Florida, with a presentation on his national team’s culture. Verdugo hired Mariachi Villa de Guadalupe, led by Cathia Matos, a violinist of Cuban descent who has been playing the genre in Florida for 20 years.
“At first, I didn’t know what it was about; I viewed it as just another booking,” Matos said in Spanish. “When we got to the stadium and saw all the press, and cameras, that’s when it hit me.”
Three Cubans, one Venezuelan and one Colombian comprise Matos’ group. After serenading the Red Sox in the locker room, the band then played on the field at Fenway South during the team’s warmups.
Verdugo, whose walk-up song is “Volver, Volver,” was a key part of Mexico’s historic semifinal run at the WBC.
“I’m Cuban, and I proudly play Mexican music,” said Matos, who adds that her group is fully booked for Cinco de Mayo weekend. “Music can be learned, it’s a way of bringing people together regardless of where they’re from.”
Meanwhile, Torres will be back at Dodger Stadium on May 16, as the team celebrates Mexican Heritage Night, in which fans will also receive a promotional poncho. Torres, who grew up a Dodgers fan in Southern California, says he feels his dedication has been reciprocated by the team, even by the players themselves. Ace pitcher Julio Urias, who is from Mexico, has stopped by personally to show his appreciation.
“One time, we were singing at the stadium, and I see security out of the corner of my eye with Julio,” Torres said. “I thought we were going to stop and be moved so he could walk on by. One of them came up to me and said, ‘No, he wants a picture with you.’ I was taken aback.
“‘What? OK! Awesome!'”