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Research finds that Mexican Spanish pronunciation is key for authentic mariachi music

Research finds that Mexican Spanish pronunciation is key for authentic mariachi music

APRIL 6, 2023 — You don’t have to be fully bilingual to be considered an authentic mariachi musician, but you must sing with a genuine Mexican Spanish accent, argues UTSA College of Education and Human Development associate professor M. Sidury Christiansen in a recent article published in the International Journal of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism.

Christiansen, associate professor of applied linguistics and Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages, spent two years completing the ethnographic study, sitting in on mariachi classes on San Antonio’s West Side. Her work culminated in the article “Building identity and authenticity: exploring the spatiotemporal aspects of language teaching in mariachi class.”

For the study, Christiansen focused on students of Mexican descent who are dominant English speakers and are learning how to perform mariachi music in Spanish. She observed how some trades of pronunciation of Spanish words are central to the identity of Latinx people, such as rolling the R in certain words or pronouncing Spanish names without an anglicized accent.

“The minute you put a mariachi outfit on, that you put that guitar on, you are basically allowing yourself, and the community is allowing you.”

In the article, Christiansen argues that mariachi music is chronotopic because it represents a snapshot in Mexican history and demonstrates the cultural authenticity displayed in a particular time and place and, therefore, allows people to behave in certain, expected ways. Mariachis are chronotopic because they evoke ideas and identities from an agrarian, Mexican past that does not reflect the current Mexican or Mexican-American communities, but that still helps shape Mexican heritage and cultural identities.

“The minute you put a mariachi outfit on, that you put that guitar on, you are basically allowing yourself, and the community is allowing you, to present certain behaviors because everybody is expecting you to behave like a mariachi, which means to embody characteristics typical of a man from 1960s rural Mexico from courtship, bravery, independence, responsibility and strength. And these attributes can be repurposed to fit women Mariachis as well. This is what makes the mariachi motif chronotopic,” Christiansen said.

Christiansen uses chronotopes to understand the set of behaviors people perform in different locations at different times that emulate others at different spatiotemporal contexts. Another example of a chronotope is a classroom because students and teachers are expected to behave in certain ways, such as students raising their hands to ask questions. If the classroom were moved outside or online, those set of behaviors would still be expected, Christiansen said.

It's important to recognize mariachis as chronotopic because it allows us to understand why Spanish lyrics must be sung with certain pronunciation so the identity that is conveyed through music maintains its authenticity, Christiansen said.

“The mariachi chronotope, in a way, dictates what can or cannot be done, so as long as you adhere to the chronotopic behavior, you are considered authentic,” she said.

Read more about M. Sidury Christiansen’s work with Russian students.
⇒ Learn more about M. Sidury Christiansen’s published research.
Discover the research in the College of Education and Human Development.

To expemplify why Christiansen argues the Mariachi motif is a chronotope, she presented two unlikely examples of authentic mariachi groups, one from Croatia and another from Japan. Los Caballeros de Croacia is a famous mariachi group in Croatia that sings only in Spanish, and Spanish-singing Japanese mariachi groups have won international competitions and performed at international events representing Mexican culture.

“For the mariachi chronotope, Spanish language is very important, but unlike existing literature that shows the Mexican diaspora must speak ‘fluent’ Spanish (regardless of the form) to gain membership as an authentic Mexican, for an authentic mariachi singer, it is the accuracy and pronunciation of certain linguistic traits, not fluency, that grants membership,” Christiansen writes in the article.

Brooke Crum

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