Natividad Cano, Mexican American Mariachi Musician and National Heritage Fellow, was 61 years old when interviewed by Robert Atkinson in 1994.
My birth, the delivery was normal, other than being very poor, in my hometown. There were no stories about when I was born, except that my grandfather and my father used to work in the fields, and that the time was the Revolution between the church and state.
That’s what I remember, the stories that my grandfather would tell me. I would be close with him, so I can remember those things. I was closer to my grandfather than to my father, but I don’t know why. He seemed to be a very nice man. Very quiet and understanding. He didn’t quite want me to learn the music of mariachi.
I guess at the time father wanted to teach me to learn the music, so we could make more money for the family. Rather than being just one salary, it would be two, and my grandfather would say, “I don’t want you to be a musician because all the musicians are alcoholics,” or whatever. I remember that. He was quite against that. But I was following then, wherever they went to play.
They both were musicians, my grandfather and my father. But they learned out of necessity, I guess, to make a better way of life, rather than just working on the fields. They felt that they could make more money playing the music.
I fooled around with music, and I started following them, and my father saw that I liked it, so he started teaching me the Mexican instruments. And then later I went to school, to the Music Academy, to learn how to read music.
I don’t know what drew me to the music. I just know that I was there. Not because they wanted me to be there. I would follow them. Actually, my father said, “No, no, no. Go out with the kids and play.”
I wanted to listen to the music. Still, today, I cannot explain why. All I remember is they would be rehearsing and they would chase me away because they were playing the cantinas and they didn’t allow children to be there, so I would look for a place close to work, so I could listen to the music.
That went on forever. I don’t remember staying away. I always wanted to stay close to them. I would listen to them play, and I knew that I could not go in, but I would be outside the cantina, just kind of getting close to the wall, close to the doors, just to listen. That’s what I remember.
I don’t remember being asked, “Come on. Join us. Go with us.” I would always follow. They started teaching me when I was around six years old. I started going out with them to play, just to learn.
Then they felt that it wasn’t fair for me to be going with them just to learn, and so they decided to start paying me. Then my father saw the chance to make more money, so he would increase his intentions for me to learn.
My father was a good teacher at the beginning. He used to play three instruments very well, so those are the three instruments that I learned from him. The bass guitar, the viola, and the violin.
But he was the one, also, that took me to the Academy because he could no longer teach me other than the mariachi style that he knew. But he wanted me to learn more than that, so he wanted me to learn the classical music, so he took me to the Academy.
I started going to the Academy at eight years old. I was doing everything. Going to school, and going to the Academy, and then going to play with them. There was no other choice. We had a big family. All together there was ten of us. So we had to work hard to keep the family living well.
At the Academy they teach you to read the music. You learn the Philharmonic Repertoire. You learn the classical music and the techniques, to play that type of music. And I did try when I was eleven or twelve to play the Philharmonic.
We’d have competitions between youngsters and I won a couple of them. I wanted to be part of the Philharmonic, and I tried, but I could not feel the music. I enjoyed it. Classical music is my second choice for music. I enjoy that very much. But to play it, I really don’t feel it. So I spent a couple of weeks trying, and then went back to the mariachi.
The teaching I had at home from my father was different from the teaching at the Academy. My father was very strict. I learned from him on a one-to-one basis. Not as a group, but on a one-to-one basis. I remember that I was a very lucky kid because not too many kids have a chance to learn on a one-to-one basis.
At the school, you learn as a group. The teacher would teach you a few things, but you play as a group. And since I was not really into that type of music, I was not paying that much attention. I learned to read music, which I’m proud about. I can play a couple of things in the classical style. But I don’t know. My heart wasn’t really there.
When my father was teaching me hoe to play, we were able to get the Mexican instruments and the violin. But the style of the mariachi, for some reason, I was really right into it. I mean, I wanted more and more and more. At that time, I didn’t know what it was. But now when I play this music, I know that that’s what it was. I know the rhythms.
Mariachi music could be very beautiful or romantic, but most of it is really aggressive. It’s a challenge to learn it. It has a unique way to project this music. It’s not just learning the three-by-four or six-by-eight or two-by-four rhythm. It’s a unique style. You can put it on a music sheet and read it, but it is a challenge to play mariachi music.
The real mariachi music, not the commercial type of music. The songs that become popular over the radio, that’s the easy part. I mean to play the rhythms from the different regions of Mexico. All the different types of rhythms that you can play. The six-by-eight and change it to a two-by-four. And you should be able to follow that.
We played with different musicians in my career, sometimes with the members of the Philharmonic. And even they had a score. I mean, the music to read. We couldn’t get along together. If you see it as a form of art, play it the way it is. It’s real difficult.
Mariachi music is considered the folk music of Mexico. On many occasions, big events in Mexico, like the Olympic Games in 1968, I believe they opened and ended with some two hundred mariachi bands together. So the whole world saw that. The government felt that, “Let them see our folklore.”
But there’s many different types of music, all over the country, like westako music, harocha music, gora music, different types. But mariachi is the strongest one. It didn’t have the status of some other music. The mentality sometimes of some people, you know, they feel that because you’re coming from the mountains or you’re coming from the small towns, that you’re not quite a first-class citizen. So I’m not sure why we were neglected, but we were not quite accepted in the mainstream of the music.
My teenage years happened so fast. It was struggle all the way. You have to understand, it was dreaming and dreaming and dreaming, and getting closer to your dream. I think one of the highlights was around 1961 or 1962, we were invited to play Carnegie Hall in New York. I already knew about that, because I had read about places that I wanted to be part of.
When they invited us to play there, as a group, I couldn’t believe it. We were there on the stage. It was so beautiful. That was definitely a highlight of my life. I don’t want to say that we were the headliners, but we were part of the concert. And that itself made it very nice. That was from the beginning, when I took over the group. It’s amazing. We started playing, and the whole audience just went crazy. This was not just any other venue. I mean, this was Carnegie Hall.
And the same night I had those two what you call highlights. Something that I remember. I still shake about it. When we played, we started playing by ourselves. And then we accompany Pedro Vargas, and at the time, he was one of the greatest singers in Mexico. He’s no longer with us.
And then what happened was he was performing with the Philharmonic. So the audience liked it so much that at the end of his performance, they wanted more. More encores. Well, he didn’t have any more music for the Philharmonic. The audience said they wanted more and more and more and more.
I remember he said, “Bring my mariachi.” So we came on the stage in front of the Philharmonic. And we didn’t know what he was going to sing, because nobody expected that kind of situation.
So he came to me, whispering. I went to the guys, “You just follow me. We’re going to do this, and we’re going to do that.”
And we started playing. I remember this because the guy in the back for the Philharmonic went, “What?! Wow! You guys can play like that?”
They said, “Yes. This is the way mariachis sound. We react to vibrations and we use our senses. Sometimes we don’t have to read.”
I mean, the guy singing was following him like that. So for me, I was proud.
And it came out in an article in the paper at the time saying we were good. This was 33 years ago. That was definitely one of the highlights in my life. One thing is to improvise by yourself. Improvise and accompany somebody and you don’t know what they’re going to do.
I had to be somewhere between nine and eleven years old when I came to this country. I remember listening to people talk about Mexicans being in Los Angeles. And I started thinking. When you’re young you think your own town, your own country. That’s what it is. Other than that, something strange, something that you don’t know. So I was saying, “Is that true?”
And then the people says, “Oh, yes.”
So I started to kind of think, “Oh, some days I would like to see the United States.” It was like an impossible dream. I started saying, “Someday I’m going to get there to see if it is true.” And that’s when I started it. I started dreaming then.
And then there came the invitation, an invitation for me to come and play in Baja. I used to be right in Guadalajara, but then they invited me to play in Baja. I accepted the invitation thinking that was closer to Los Angeles than what it was. And then, bingo. Somebody came to listen to our group then, the group that I was playing with, and they invited us to play in Los Angeles.
I remember talking to the leader of the group at that time and saying, “Let’s go. Let’s go.” Of course, it was not easy for them because they already had families and children, and I was just a single person.
But I guess they saw the possibility to make more money than they were making in Baja, and they accepted us, so I was lucky.
And once there, I didn’t care where we went to play. I didn’t care. And right on, there was a small canteen, and playing for dancing. At the time I didn’t care. All I knew was I was already in Los Angeles, and that was my dream.
And then being there and seeing what’s going on, then I started dreaming again. I said, “There’s got to be something better than this.” Because I didn’t quite accept the fact that people wouldn’t listen to our music.
We can make it. We can combine what we do today, but with typical dances from Mexico, not for pleasure dancing. Of course, when you dance you have pleasure. What I’m saying is for the folklore dancing. That’s what I’m talking about.
So I started again dreaming about getting out of there because I wanted something better. So I got out of the group and started looking around. I was invited to another group. That’s when we started the Los Comparos group in 1961.
And then they started looking for somebody to represent us, to start going to better places, and we started playing Catalina Island, then we went to Las Vegas, and then they liked the group, and then we started going places. And the rest is more or less history.
It’s interesting. Then some time went by, quite a few years, and then we kind of stayed in one routine. We were going to Las Vegas, Lake Tahoe, Reno, New York. We would go there to play. Hawaii. So all those acts covered most of the whole year.
Most of the guys started, not complaining, but they were getting tired of being away from their families. We used to spend at least seven to eight months out of the year being in Las Vegas, Lake Tahoe. And what did you do? There’s nothing to do except gamble.
So some of the guys used to gamble like every other human being that goes to Las Vegas. So instead of making money, they were almost losing money. So then we started discussing the situation and talking about that, and we decided to put some money together to open a restaurant, that would be our headquarters in Los Angeles.
It wasn’t easy, but with the help of other people, we were able to accomplish that. And it’s still there today. It wasn’t easy, and we traveled a lot. So I knew that when we were there. But again, not quite on the mainstream of the music, you see? It was like, “Put it on the side. Put it in the back, somewhere.”
Well, this is how it went. I was thinking, “Well, at least we have a place. A place where we can show our talent, show our music and be proud of it, with dignity and all that.” And that we accomplished, and I’m proud of that.
And then a few years went by, and suddenly we felt like, “Okay, just enjoy life. We have a place. We have a home.” And we’re still doing the music. And then suddenly, in San Antonio, they started doing the Mariachi Festival.
And I was invited to play, but to compete. And I replied, “Thank you, and I appreciate your invitation, but we don’t compete.”
And a couple years went by, and Los Angeles, somebody started throwing a festival, too, and I took the same attitude. Some people just say, “Give it up,” or something like that. But I said, “No, I don’t think so.” That was around 1985, I believe. And I told the guys, “No, I don’t think so. We’re not through yet.”
So we started getting together, and pretty soon they started inviting us, not to compete, but to be part of the big show, and then we started accepting invitations, and we started going, so bingo. I guess that’s when somebody was watching us, or watching me, I don’t know what I was doing. And that’s how they suddenly invited me to be part of the National Heritage Fellows.
Then I was interviewed by Dan Rather, ABC, and he was talking to me. He said, “What about this? What about that?”
I said, “Well, you know what? I’m not quite through yet. Until I see my group taking over the concert halls by ourselves, with no other bands out in front of us, just ourselves, then I will say, ‘We made it.’” Well, thank God we accomplished that.
So the last couple of years we’ve been doing that, by ourselves, as we sold out the place, the one in San Antonio. Beautiful theater. Majestic theater. The promoters didn’t think that we were going to sell out. They were surprised that the place was sold out, and the crowd gave us two standing ovations. It was really nice.
So I feel that we’re in the right direction, and I feel that there’s still room to improve. We’re going to try, or at least I will try to do the best I can to improve what we already have. I would say that I’m proud of what we accomplished. But like I said, there’s still room for improvement.
I mentioned the mainstream. We have to get there, somehow. I think we get there little by little, but it’s not going to be easy. I don’t want people to accept us because we are mariachis. They get jumping, you know? I want people to notice that we have talent. I want people to notice the viola, how the guy moves his hand. I want people to notice that the violins can play all different types of sounds, all different types of styles. I want people to hear that. Not the fact that we are just mariachis.
One of the personal qualities that my parents passed on to me was honesty. My father was very, very strict, but I learned quite a few things from him that today I remember. One of those is honesty. Respect. He taught me how to have respect for other people. And I think that I do. I respect other people. Because at the same time, I want them to respect me. And honesty. I think those two qualities are very significant.
I was born Catholic. They don’t give you a choice. I did have fun being part of that religion because people, when they go to baptize children, I was part of the group of youngsters helping the priest, on the alter. I don’t know what they’re called here, alter boys, that’s it.
And then they were finished with the ceremony, and I remember we would go inside and take a fast so we could go outside. The custom was that the padrino of the child, the godfather, would throw coins into the air, to whoever was there. We would scramble to get the coins. So I grew up being into the Catholic church. But I grew up on the real life, outside church. I never changed religion. I’m still what I am because God’s inside of me.
What makes a good teacher is the one who has the dedication and the concern about what he represents and trying to give, trying to touch, the students to feel, to be proud about what they do.
I don’t call myself a teacher. I happen to represent this type of music, and whenever or whatever I play, there goes my life. I mean, if I would die at that moment, I don’t care, because that’s what I feel. And when I share the music with students, youngsters, I pray them to believe in themselves.
I’ll tell you an experience that I had, because I am part of a class called The Music of Mexico. And I’m in charge of that class. We get together once a year, all the students, to perform in one of the small halls in LA.
And there was a guy there that wanted to sing on the show. And my TA, my assistant teacher, tells me, “So-and-so wants to sing.”
So I said, “Fine with me.”
Then she says, “Well, you don’t know. When he sings with everybody, he’s okay. But he wants to do a solo.”
I said, “Why not?”
She says, “Mr. Cano, he really doesn’t know how to sing.”
I said, “Let me listen to him, and I’ll tell you.”
So I said, “Sing a song for me.”
And he did, and she was right. He couldn’t carry a single note. He couldn’t carry it. And I told her “You have to excuse us, but tell him that he cannot sing solo.”
Well, she went to tell him, and I could see from the distance that she was telling him, and he started crying.
And I went, “Oh, my God.”
I don’t know how I did it, I said, “I’ll tell you what. He’s going to sing. I’ll find a way.” So I took to him, and he was very happy.
Then came the night of the concert. So I went to the audience and explained to them. “Look. This is a student. This is not a performance. This is not something that you would pay for.”
So everybody understood.
So we started the song. He started singing. He went way out of tune. I mean, completely way out. But I was prepared. So I got one of my guys, and my helper said, “Come on.” And we went to the microphone, embraced him, and we did like a trio.
And somehow he started following us, and he came back to do the right tune. And then we started singing, the three of us, just like compadres. And people gave a standing ovation to the guy.
My point is that he will never make it as a singer. If somebody asked you, he shouldn’t. But whatever he’s learning, he’s going to excel at that. He’s going to accomplish that, because, I mean, what I did I guess gave him the self-confidence that he can accomplish that. He was very happy. He was shaking. He hugged me.
And I think that’s what teachers should do. Make the students believe in themselves. Not to teach the music, not to teach this or that. But make the young people believe in themselves.
If they believe in themselves, they will accomplish what they want to accomplish in life. Like I said, I don’t consider myself a teacher. I’m a teacher. That’s what I am.
Some people have told me that I have the ability to make people accomplish things. And some of my own musicians have. They’re going to be great musicians.