The Mexican art of mariachi takes center stage on American brands

ALBUQUERQUE, NM — There are few corners of the globe where the echoes of mariachi music have not yet reached, filling street corners with the sounds of blaring trumpets and strumming guitars that form the backbone of the traditional Mexican genre.

Now all that holiday fever is packed into a tiny US postage stamp.

The U.S. Postal Service celebrated Friday the launch of a new series of stamps honoring mariachis. The first day of release ceremony was held in New Mexico’s largest city as musicians and fans from around the world gathered for a weekend of concerts hosted by the 30th annual Mariachi Spectacular de Albuquerque.

The five graphic stamps are the work of artist Rafael Lopez, who lives and works in both Mexico and San Diego. Each features an individual performer dressed in traditional clothing with their instrument. While the outfits are ornate, the backdrops are simple and bright, inspired by the palette of another Mexican craft — papel picado, the intricate paper cut-out flags often displayed at parties and other events.

Although mystery surrounds the origins of the mariachito, Lopez said there is no doubt that the beat and rhythm, which developed over centuries in small Mexican villages, is now known around the world. There’s something special about the celebratory nature of mariachi, and Latin Americans are proud to be able to share that with other cultures, Lopez said.

And having it now recognized by the brands is a bonus, said Robert Palacios, executive director of the Las Cruces International Mariachi Conference, which is held each November in the border city.

Palacios, 32, plays the guitar and credits music with keeping him out of trouble when he was in middle school.

“It just turned things around for me,” he said. “That’s what I wanted to do and now 20 years later I’m the director of the mariachi conference and I’m just working to keep it alive. So for me it’s full circle, being a student and now being able to share that passion.”

The mariachi effect can be like magic, Lopez said, putting people in a festive mood and turning strangers into fast friends. But he can’t explain whether it’s the rhythm, the outfits, the singing, or all of it.

“It’s a universal thing that mariachis have and it’s hard to explain,” he said during an interview from his studio in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico.

“We all need a little time to relax and feel happy every now and then and this music does that,” he added. “So I think that’s something that makes us Latinos proud to see something that started in this region of Mexico and all of a sudden become part of the Southwest culture, become part of the United States. Before you know it, it’s universal, international.”

Lopez grew up in Mexico City surrounded by mariachi music. He plays guitar, violin and the six-string guitarrón, which provides the bass line for a mariachi ensemble.

He knows where each member of the band should place their hands to create that special tone. And this is reflected in the images of postage stamps.

The images were also inspired by movie posters from Mexico’s golden age of cinema in the 1940s and 1950s and by tourist posters published by the US government in the late 1930s and early 1940s.

“I wanted to have that nostalgic quality,” said Lopez, who also created the Merengue Series Legends brand of Latin music and illustrated a children’s book by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor. “I didn’t want it to look modern, but more like something we would remember from when we were kids.”

For the next generation, Palacios said he hopes this new wave of attention will spur more inspiration.

“It’s a big step for our culture, a beautiful step,” he said.

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