California State University, Long Beach
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In Tune with the Impact
of Mexican Women Singers

Portrait of Antonia Garcia-Orozco

As far as Antonia Garcia-Orozco is concerned, it all goes back to a prior queen.

A new member this year of Chicano and Latino Studies, she received her doctorate in cultural studies in 2005 from Claremont Graduate University where her dissertation explored the impact of Mexican women singers. As she learned first about one singer and another, she found herself going back to the roots of cancion ranchera.

Portrait of Antonia Garcia-OrozcoRanchera is a genre of Mexico’s traditional music. Although closely associated with the mariachi groups which evolved in Jalisco in the post-revolutionary period, rancheras are also played today by norteño (or Conjunto) or banda (or Duranguense) groups. Drawing on rural traditional folklore, the ranchera was conceived as a symbol of a new national consciousness in reaction to aristocratic tastes. Traditional rancheras are about love, patriotism or nature. Rhythms can reflect the tempo of waltzes, polkas and the bolero. Instrumentation may include guitars, strings, trumpets, and/or accordions, depending on the ensemble.

“I first became interested in the work of Lola Beltran, who was the queen of cancion ranchera,” said Garcia-Orozco, who received her B.A. in Communication Studies in 1989 and her M.A. in 1993 from CSU Northridge while also serving as a lecturer there. “But I found there was little written in English about her career or her music. And as I kept looking, everything kept going back to a prior queen. I felt I was writing about Billie Holiday, only to discover Bessie Smith and then I was writing about Bessie Smith only to discover Ma Rainey.”

Beginning with Beltran, Antonia-Garcia began to work her way back to such musical pioneers as Lucha Reyes (1906-44) who mixed a powerful intelligence with a taste for partying. One of her first songs in the "ranchera-mariachi" genre, "Guadalajara", became a classic that is nowadays considered by many to be Mexico's second national anthem. When she decided to sing with mariachis, she caused a culture shock, as Mexican music fans were not used to seeing women lead mariachi bands. Despite her success, she also garnered much criticism, especially when talking about alcoholism in public. “Alcohol and bad marriages reduced her impact,” Garcia-Orozco said. “She had that in common with the great blues queens.”

Performance research begins with the music. “I obtain the text of a particular performance, then I research the life of the artist to understand the performance’s motivation,” she explained. She finds herself tapping into everything from anthropology to Greek philosophy to understand her artists. “When I look at their lives and their hardships, such as traveling across the U.S. and Mexico, I understand their music better,” she said. “I had to learn to understand performing in two countries and the attendant border issues, changing costumes on board a bus and performing five times a day, sometimes for no money. Sometimes they were paid in poultry. The real thrill for me is discovering first-hand materials no one ever saw before. Personal archives are priceless. That’s what you live for.”

Garcia-Orozco is one of the first U.S. scholars to explore the lives of these pivotal performers. “But most of the research, what there is of it, is about the male performers,” she said. “Gender plays a major role in my research. Genres were developed and crowds attracted by women singers but their hits were turned into vehicles for men. Sometimes these women singers were prevented from making the transfer from one media to another. If singers behaved, they might be allowed back into the media’s good graces. But the owners of radio and TV also owned the newspapers and to be shut out of one was to be shut out of all. On the other hand, when a singer was embraced, that singer was embraced by all the media.”

Garcia-Orozco received her A.A. degree in music and originally planned a career as a singer. Her students often get a demonstration of a particular song. “It surprises my students but I’m not sure what surprises them more; the fact I can sing or the fact that I can sing on key,” she laughed. Her students also perform in her class when they deconstruct a song, then build another. “This moves them from textual analysis to the realm of performance and theater,” she said. “They start to have fun and tap into the music. It can be very cathartic. Students begin to tap into their own creativity. “

Garcia-Orozco overcame a learning disability as a child which made study difficult. “That’s one reason I chose the performing arts as a possible career,” she said. “While I was not able to read smoothly, I could always sing and performance gave me a mechanism to study. It helped me to compensate and do well in school. It slowed me down but it didn’t stop me. I’m tenacious if nothing else.”

Her disability gives her a special empathy with her students and she encourages them not to give up. “I’ve been on the dean’s list and I’ve been disqualified,” she recalled. “And I have the transcripts to prove it. I often invite speakers from academic support services into my classes. If I can’t take the students to the resources, I bring the resources to them. Hopefully, the students will make use of them.”