Stamp Stories: Mariachi

Just For Kids!


five mariachi stamps

Join educators from the National Postal Museum and the National Museum of the American Latino for an exploration of Mexican mariachi music with a children’s book, museum objects, and postage stamps.

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Maureen: Hi, I’m Maureen from the National Postal Museum.

Emily: And I’m Emily from the National Museum of the American Latino.

Maureen: Welcome to Stamp Stories, where we explore topics that appear on postage stamps. New stamps come out every year on wide variety of topics. Today we’re going to learn about mariachi music.

Emily: Mariachiis a type of music that originated in Mexico and is now popular in the United States and all over the world. It’s very lively and includes the use of many different instruments.

Maureen: Let’s start by reading a book about mariachi music. This book is called Finding the Music | En Pos de la Música. Text copyright 2015 by Jennifer Torres. Illustrations copyright 2015 by Renato Alarcāo. Special thanks to Lee and Low books for permission to use this book.

Above a booth at the back of Cielito Lindo restaurant hung the old vihuela. Reyna’s abuelito, her grandpa, had played the instrument when he was a musician in a mariachi band. Reyna spent every weekend at the restaurant with her mamá. In the morning when Mamá opened the restaurant she would touch the strings, close her eyes, and whisper, “Ay, Reyna, how I wish you could hear your abuelito play again.”

Reyna like to climb into her favorite booth - the one below Abuelito’s vihuela – to read while Mamá cooked. But the restaurant was often so noisy, Reyna couldn't concentrate. When Reyna complained, Mamá just smiled. “Oh Reyna,” she sighed, “These are the sounds of happy lives. The voices of our neighbors are like music, Abuelito always said.” Reyna wasn't so sure - especially one Saturday when Cielito Lindo was noisier than ever.

All day the doorbell jangled as customers walked in and out. Mr. Espinosa and Mr. Hernández shook their newspapers at each other, their coffee growing cold while they argued then agreed then argued again. The Sandoval twins smacked spoons against the table. In the kitchen, where Mamá was warming a batch of tortillas, dance music rang out from the old-fashioned record player on the countertop. Reyna sank deeper into the booth. She pulled her book closer to her nose and tried to ignore the ruckus.

 Suddenly one of the Sandoval twins threw a spoonful of food at his brother. The boys hollered wildly. “Enough!” Reyna shouted, flinging her arms up in the air. The book slipped from her fingers and flew straight into Abuelito’s vihuela, knocking it to the floor with a loud thud. “Oh no!” Reyna gasped. Everyone stared at her and stunned silence - everyone except Mamá, who was still in the kitchen. Reyna couldn't let Mamá see what had happened. She grabbed the vihuela and rushed toward the door. “Be back soon, Mamá,” Reyna called. “Don't go too far,” Mamá replied. “I want you here in time for dinner.”

Outside, Reyna sucked in a deep breath and examined the vihuela. An ugly crack crept up the front, and the strings drooped. Reyna had never heard Abuelito play the vihuela, but every night at bedtime Mamá described the Mexican folk songs he had performed. She said the music was like an old friend, taking your hands and pulling you onto the dance floor. Reyna knew she had to get the vihuela fixed somehow.

 Not far from Cielito Lindo was Don Antonio’s hardware store. Don Antonio had repaired Reyna’s bicycle once. Maybe he could help again.  “Can you fix it?” Reyna asked as she lifted the villa onto the counter. Don Antonio tilted his head and squinted. “A ver,” he said. “Let's see.”  He tugged at one of the sagging strings with his pliers. The string snapped.  “I'm sorry,” Don Antonio said, shaking his head. He handed the vihuela back to Reyna. As she turned to leave, she noticed an old photo taped to the cash register.

Reyna recognized one of the faces from photographs at home. “My abuelito?” she asked. “Sí,” Don Antonio said.  “Yes.” He took down the picture from the cash register. “This was at my wedding. None of us had much money then, so instead of a gift, your abuelito and his mariachis played for us.” Don Antonio handed the photo to Reyna. “Now I'd like to give it to you.”  “Gracias,” Reyna said. “Thank you.” She left the hardware store wondering what to do next.

Across the street Reyna saw Miss Ana, the school music teacher, pulling weeds in her garden Miss Ana seemed to know everything about musical instruments. Reyna hoped she knew how to fix them too. Reyna showed Miss Ana the vihuela and told her what had happened. “You know, Reyna,” Miss Ana said, “The first music lessons I ever took were from your abuelito. He taught me on this vihuela. Wait here. I think I have something that will help.”

When Miss Ana returned she was carrying a hat - a sombrero de charro. “An old hat?” Reyna asked. “How will that help?”  “When I went to college to study music, your abuelito gave me his sombrero for good luck,” Miss Ana said. “Now I hope it will bring good luck to you.” Miss Ana put the hat on Reyna’s head. Reyna smiled, proud to wear abuelito’s sombrero. Then she remembered the vihuela and her smile disappeared. “Don't worry, Reyna,” Miss Ana said. “Your mamá will understand it was an accident.” Reyna nodded and waved goodbye hoping, Miss Ana was right.

Talking with Miss Ana had given Reyna another idea she would take the vihuela to Adelita, the music shop. Reyna wondered why she hadn't thought of it sooner. Last year Mamá had bought Reyna a trumpet at Adelita’s. Mamá didn't have enough money to pay for the trumpet all at once, but Señor Marcos, the owner, had said Mamá could pay for it a little at a time Reyna crossed her fingers. Maybe with the money Mamá gave her for helping at the restaurant she could pay for a new vihuela the same way.

“Reyna, hello!” Señor Marcos called when Reyna entered the shop. Then he noticed the vihuela. ¿Qué pasó? He asked. “What happened?” “It was my abuelito’s,” Reyna explained. “It fell off the wall. I was wondering if you had another one. I can pay for it a little bit at a time.” Señor Marcos held out his hand. “May I see it?” He ran his finger over the ugly crack. “I don't have any vihuelas,” he said finally. “But you don't need one. I can help you fix this.”  

“¡Gracias!” Reyna cried. Miss Ana was right. The sombrero was good luck. “Can we do it now?” Señor Marcos shook his head. “I'm sorry, but I'm busy until next weekend.” Reyna sighed. Mamá would be so disappointed. “I never even heard Abuelito play,” Reyna whispered. After listening to so many stories about his music, she longed to hear it. “Sígueme,” Señor Marco said. “Follow me.”

Señor Marcos led Reyna to his office. He searched through stacks of old records, pulled one out, and handed it to Reyna. “If you're going to fix the vihuela,” he said, “You need to know how it's supposed to sound. Your abuelito’s mariachi band had a few of these little records made. This one might be the only one left. Take it home and listen. Then come back with a the vihuela next Saturday morning.” Reyna thanked Señor Marcos and returned to Cielito Lindo. She couldn't wait to play the record, but first she had to tell Mamá what had happened to the vihuela.

“Where have you been?” Mamá asked when she heard the doorbell jingle. “I'm really sorry,” Reyna said. She explained how she had broken the vihuela and promised to fix it, with help from Señor Marcos. “Where did you find that?” Mamá interrupted, pointing to the sombrero. “It's from Miss Ana,” Reyna replied. “Abuelito gave it to her and now she gave it to me. And look, Don Antonio gave me this photo.” Mamá laughed. “How handsome Abuelito was.” Then she tucked the picture into the hatband and hung the sombrero on the wall right where the vihuela had been.

As the dinnertime crowd filled Cielito Lindo, Reyna had one more idea. She hurried to the kitchen and put Abuelito’s record on the record player. Then she turned the volume dial as high as it would go. “Ay, ay, ay, ay!” Abuelito’s joyful voice rang through the restaurant. The sound of his was vihuela was clear and sweet. “Listen, Mamá,” Reyna said. “You can hear Abuelito play again!” Then she took her mamá's hands and together they danced around the tables laughing and spinning. It was noisier than ever at Cielito Lindo and Reyna didn't mind at all.

Emily: That story was wonderful! In the story, Reyna is trying to get her grandfather’s vihuela fixed. Here you see sketches from the Smithsonian’s folklife collection. In the sketch, you can see that one man is playing the vihuela while another man is playing the harp. The harp plays along with the bass line and sometimes also plays the melody. The Mariachi Harp is known as the Arpa Jarocha, or Mexican Harp whose roots are found in Veracruz. 

Charro/a outfits are the traditional outfits of mariachi and they’re based on the clothing of a type of horseman known as the charro. The outfit usually includes tight, elaborately decorated pants or long skirts with embroidery and embellishments, short jackets, silk ties, and a wide-brimmed sombrero known as a charro hat.

This was Edgardo Gazcón’s blue silk bowtie from the 1990s. He was a Mexican entertainer who spent time on United States television on Univision and Telemundo. He was also a musician and recording artist, and would sometimes appear in his traditional Charro outfit, including the bow tie you see here.

Women can also wear the China Poblana outfit. China Poblana outfits are traditional Mexican outfits that included an embroidered blouse (usually white), a full skirt decorated with beading, embroidery, and sequins, and a colorful shawl, among other items. The China Poblana outfit here was used by Rosita Fernandez in San Antonio in the 1960s. Because of her sixty-year career in music and theater, she was known as San Antonio’s First Lady of Song.

You can see a modified version of this traditional outfit in the Smithsonian’s Mariachi Grupo Bella performance from 2018.

The tradition of Mariachi music is alive and well across the United States and has been adopted by many regions in the country. Mexican American communities use the music to help keep their cultural traditions alive, building community by gathering like you see in the postcard from Olvera Street in Los Angeles, California.

Maureen: Thanks, Emily! It’s wonderful to see those museum objects related to mariachi music. It has such a rich history! Mariachi music is such a vital part of Mexican culture, and it’s popular all over the world, especially in the United States. In 2022, the United States Postal Service issued a set of stamps honoring mariachi music. Let’s take a look.

(Short music clip)
Mariachi music is known for being so fun and lively! All the instruments have their own sound, and each one is an important part of mariachi music. These postage stamps feature five of the main instruments played by mariachi musicians. The photo you see here is of Rafael López, who was the stamp artist for this series. He’s in a town square in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, making sketches of the musicians while they play. He used these drawings as inspiration for his stamp art. Can you find some of the instruments in the photo on the postage stamps? Let’s take a closer look.

The first instrument is the guitar, which is used in all kinds of music all over the world. Every mariachi band has at least one guitar player. This instrument has six strings and it provides the basis for all the songs, and all the other instruments. It’s like the backbone of the band.

The violin is important too - there can be as many as eight in one group! Since violins are small, you need several of them to make enough noise to be heard amid all the other instruments. Not every mariachi band has violins, but the larger ones usually do.

This instrument is a vihuela, like the one from the book we read! The vihuela is strongly associated with mariachi music. It’s a small, five-stringed guitar that plays higher notes, and usually provides harmony to the main melody. Vihuela players use their fingernails to play their instrument, and produce a bright, clear sound.

This instrument is called a guitarrón and it’s also a very traditional part of mariachi music. It’s a large guitar with an oversized back, which makes it very loud. It plays the low notes, or the bass notes, which provide the rhythm to the music that the band plays, so it has a very important role.

The last instrument featured on these stamps is the trumpet. It’s also considered a vital part of the mariachi band, and helps give mariachi music its signature sound. Unlike some of the other instruments we’ve seen, there is usually only one trumpet player in a mariachi band. That’s because, unlike violins, they are very loud!

Mariachi music holds a beloved place in the history and culture of Mexico. Mariachi songs can stir up many emotions and memories in its audiences. As stamp artist Rafael López describes: “Growing up I remember nostalgic weekends listening to the uniquely Mexican sound of Mariachi music in Plaza Garibaldi in Mexico City. Colorful songs that tell stories of celebration, struggles, lost love, and joy.”

Emily: That was a lot of fun talking about mariachi music! If you’d like to learn more about mariachi music, and other parts of Latino culture and communities, check out the National Museum of the American Latino’s website for more information, resources, programs, and events. We hope to see you soon.

Maureen: Thanks so much, Emily, and thank you to our audience for joining us today. If you’d like to learn more about music on stamps and about a whole lot of other topics, you can check out the National Postal Museum’s website. We encourage you to just keep exploring!