KCUR Arts
9:57 am
Sun July 20, 2008

Mariachi Mamas

In Topeka, the 75th annual Fiesta Mexicana took place recently at the Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish. At Sunday's closing mass, one of the festival's most dedicated performers played with her band Mariachi Estrella.

Topeka, KS – Teresa Cuevas is 88 years old, and hasn't missed a Fiesta in 70 years--even after her musical career was nearly cut short by a terrible accident.

Mariachi Estrella was a bit of an anomaly. Topeka has a pretty small Latino community, and mariachi is typically played by men. But in 1980, seven women from a church choir became a regional phenomenon by trading the mariachis' traditional black pants for long maroon skirts. They became one of the first all-female mariachi bands in the country and performed all over Kansas.

The group got some pretty unusual gigs. Cuevas' eyes sparkle as she remembers the time they serenaded a group of National Guardsmen: "We surrounded them, and they didn't know what to do," she says. "They looked at each other, and we kept just getting close to them and singing."

Band member Isabel Gonzales says that was the novelty of it, "Because usually men sing to women instead of the other way around,"

Cuevas was in her 50s back then, the oldest in a group of boisterous young women. And it meant something special to her. She started playing classical violin when she was eight years old, and was so good by the time she reached junior high school, that she was invited to play in the Topeka High School symphony. But when she graduated in the 1930s, musical talent and good grades weren't enough for a young Latina looking for a job, beyond cleaning offices or sorting eggs.

"I graduated with quite a number of girls, and I know I wasn't any dumber than they were, and they got good jobs right away but I couldn't get any," Cuevas says.

So Cuevas got married and had five children. But her relationship with her husband was troubled, and she says she wanted to make a name for herself. She started playing violin with the Our Lady of Guadalupe choir.

"The music was a part of me that made me feel like myself, like I used to feel, and that's what helped me to get over that," Cuevas says. "And I think I grew as a person because I had to. I had to get away from feeling I was nothing."

Cuevas had divorced her husband by the time she was in her 50s. And with her fellow choir members, she found a new love: mariachi music.

"We called it mariachi fever that we caught," says band member Rachel Sangalang. She was 22 at the time she and other choir members went to a mariachi conference in San Antonio, Texas. "You either love it, or . . . It just happened to strike a chord with us."

Their passion was contagious, and Mariachi Estrella developed a following. In July 1981, they were invited to play in Kansas City at the new Hyatt Regency Hotel. Cuevas remembers the whole community was proud.

"The women especially they said--oh, Teresa, good for you, good for you, for a woman to be playing," she says.

When they got to the hotel, they were on their way to change into their costumes, walking across a second-story skywalk overlooking the lobby when it happened. The skywalk above them suddenly collapsed and brought them all down.

"I was asking God to help me in Spanish--I said, 'Padre Santo ayudame,'" Cuevas recalls. "And I had already made up my mind that I was going to die. But I said it real loud, and then all of a sudden a man said, 'She's alive! There's a live one.' The only thing I could move was this hand. I grabbed his hand, and they lifted it just a little bit and dragged me out of there."

Four of Cuevas' band members were among the 114 lives taken by the accident. More than 200 were injured. The skywalk collapse at Kansas City's Hyatt Regency remains one of the deadliest architectural disasters in U.S. history. And in the little Guadalupe parish in Topeka, some families drew their curtains and didn't open them again for years.

It took a couple of months before Cuevas recovered. She had a crushed vertebra, a concussion and severe bruising. But as soon as she was back on her feet, she started playing for the choir again in the church. The music helped her recover, but she had a different focus now.

"I know God saved me, and He saved me so I could be a better mother to my family and keep them together," says Cuevas.

Mariachi Estrella played together for a little while, but the surviving members found themselves drawn into their families, and each spun off their own groups. Cuevas concentrated on teaching mariachi to her grandchildren, and with them, she kept the name Mariachi Estrella. Now her granddaughters are finishing college.

"They both said, 'Grandma, you know we're going to come back,'" Cuevas says. "The trouble is, even though they love mariachi music, they've seen so many things that they want to do. Isn't that beautiful? What has opened up for these two girls?"

As Cuevas's granddaughters go on pursue their careers, it'll be harder to keep Mariachi Estrella going. But at least this weekend, Cuevas will be at the church with her band, playing the music she loves best.

Hear a longer interview with the three surviving members of Mariachi Estrella.: Teresa Cuevas, Isabel Gonzales, and Rachel Sangalang.

See a slideshow of pictures of Mariachi Estrella, the Guadalupe parish, and Teresa Cuevas today.

This story was produced for KC Currents. To listen on your own schedule, subscribe to the KC Currents Podcast.