There are few corners of the globe where the echoes of mariachi music have yet to reach, filling street corners with the sounds of the blasting trumpets and strumming guitars that form the backbone of Mexico's traditional genre.
Now, all that festive fever is being packed into a tiny U.S. postage stamp.
The U.S. Postal Service on Friday celebrated the release of a new series of stamps honoring mariachi. The first-day-of-issue ceremony was held in New Mexico’s largest city as musicians and fans from around the world convened for a weekend of concerts hosted by the 30th annual Mariachi Spectacular de Albuquerque.
The five graphic stamps were the creation of artist Rafael López, 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 backgrounds are simple and bright, inspired by the palette of another Mexican craft — papel picado, the banners of elaborate paper cutouts that are often put up for parties and other events.
While mystery surrounds the origins of mariachi, López said there’s no doubt the beats and rhythms that evolved over centuries in tiny Mexican villages are now known around the globe. There’s something special about mariachi’s celebratory nature and Latinos are proud to be able to share that with other cultures, López said.
And having it recognized now on the stamps is a bonus, said Robert Palacios, executive director of the Las Cruces International Mariachi Conference, which is held every November in the border city.
Palacios, 32, plays the guitarrón and credits the music for 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 just working to keep it alive. So it’s full circle for me, being a student and now being able to share that passion.”
The effect of mariachi can be like magic, Lopez said, leaving people in a festive mood and turning strangers into quick friends. But he can't explain whether it's the beat, the outfits, the singing or everything combined.
“It’s a universal thing that mariachi has 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 bit of a moment to relax and feel happy once in a while and this music does it,” he added. “So I think that’s something that makes us Latinos very proud to see something that started in this region of Mexico and all of a sudden it becomes part of the Southwest culture, it becomes part of the United States as well. Before you know it, it's universal, it’s international.”
López grew up in Mexico City surrounded by mariachi music. He plays the guitar, the violin and the six-string guitarrón that provides the bass line for a mariachi ensemble.
He knows where each band member needs to place their hands to create that special tone. And that's reflected in the images on the postage stamps.
The images also were inspired by movie posters from Mexico's golden era of cinema during the 1940s and ’50s and by travel posters put out by the U.S. government in the late 1930s and early ’40s.
“I wanted to have that quality of nostalgia,” said López, who also created the Latin Music Legend Series Merengue stamp and illustrated a children's book by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor. “I didn’t want it to look modern but rather like something we would remember from when we were kids.”
For the next generation, Palacios said he's hopeful this new wave of attention will spur more inspiration.
“This is a big step for our culture, a beautiful step,” he said.