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An Interview with Miguel Martínez

Originally published in the MENC March 2008 Mariachi Newsletter. Reprinted by permission.

Note: Maestro Miguel Martínez passed away on December 5th, 2014 at the age of 93.

Jonathan Clark is a well-known and respected mariachi historian. He lived for 12 years in Mexico, playing the guitarrón full-time and studying the instrument with Natividad de Santiago of Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlán. While in Mexico, he collected many historical photographs, documents, and testimonies of seminal musicians. He is the author of numerous articles on mariachi history.


Every genre of music has its list of all-time greats, and mariachi music is no exception. When we list great songwriters, we include José Alfredo Jiménez, Tomás Méndez, Juan Záizar, Alberto Cervantes, and Ernesto Cortázar; Pedro Infante, Jorge Negrete, Lucha Reyes, Javier Solís, Lola Beltrán, Vicente Fernández, and Miguel Aceves Mejía figure among the vocalists; Rubén Fuentes, Jesús Rodríguez de Híjar, Manuel Esperón, and Rigoberto Alfaro are renowned as great composers and arrangers. When we think of great mariachi trumpet players, the name Miguel Martínez resonates with great intensity.

So many contemporary mariachi trumpet players point to the sound of Miguel Martínez’s trumpet as their ultimate guide and inspiration. In addition, Miguel Martínez is the composer of important mariachi repertoire, including the pasodobles Por Tapatías, Juan Silveti, Capetillo, and Curro Vénzor, polkas La Chuparrosa, Café Colón, and Teatro Principal, as well as Las Tres Pelonas and Sincero Corazón.

This month, we have the good fortune to present the first portion of an interview of this great artist conducted by mariachi historian and MENC National Advisory Committee member Jonathan Clark. The conclusion of the interview, along with the full original Spanish text will be presented in next month's newsletter, accompanied by a number of photographs of Señor Martínez. Enjoy!

- William J. Gradante, MENC National Advisory Committee Chair-Elect and Editor

This is March 1st, 2007, and we're in Tlalnepantla, in the state of Mexico, at the home of maestro Miguel Martínez Domínguez. It's nine o'clock in the evening, and he has graciously granted me this interview.

How It All Began

Jonathan Clark (JC): Don Miguel, I understand your career in mariachi music began more by circumstance than by choice.

Miguel Martínez (MM): I'd enjoyed music since childhood, but I'd never considered making a career out of it. My father wanted me to be a medical doctor. I was still in grade school when he was involved in a high-tension cable accident… and he died. My studies came to an abrupt end because I had younger siblings, and I had to go to work to help my mother get through the crisis. I must have been 10 or 11 years old at the time.

JC: How did you begin playing the trumpet?

MM: A lowly mariachi of about five musicians used to pass by where we lived, and I would always follow them to the cantina at the corner. Noticing my fascination, one day the group leader said to me, "Buy yourself an instrument and come play with us." I ran to my mother and said, "Mommy, the mariachi says that you should buy me an instrument." "Don't be silly!," she said. "What instrument do you think you're going to play?" I went back to the man and asked him what instrument he thought I should get. "Buy yourself a trumpet," he suggested, "because some groups out there are starting to use one." They didn't have a trumpet.

JC: And after much insistence on your part, your mother finally gave in.

MM: A few months later, she ended up borrowing forty pesos from my uncle, and with that money she bought me my first trumpet at the National Pawn Shop (Monte de Piedad).

JC: Who taught you how to play?

MM: A clarinetist taught me the scales, and I began learning repertory on my own.

JC: So that's how you ended playing trumpet in Plaza Garibaldi at a very early age, to help support your family.

MM: Yes. It must have been around 1933. I was rather young, about 12 years old.

Plaza Garibaldi in the 1930s

JC: Can you describe for us what Garibaldi was like back in those days?

MM: To me, it was beautiful. It had trees, flowers, green lawns, palm trees… all well manicured. Yes, I liked it. In the middle of the garden was a bust of the hero Garibaldi. There were four wooden stands in the garden: two for food, and two for drinks. The food stands operated until seven in the evening; the drink stands opened at that time and closed at midnight. Those drinks were for the poor folks - coffee and cinnamon tea, both spiked with sugarcane alcohol - and beautiful girls were the barmaids. You know how centers of ill repute use women as a hook to lure customers! Those with more money, on the other hand, would drink pomegranate punch inside the Tenampa bar.

JC: It was quite different from the Plaza Garibaldi we know today.

MM: Ah, yes. They demolished the garden that used to be there. Gardens are the city's lungs, you know - they produce oxygen and clean air - and they got rid of it all to construct the underground parking garage that's there now.

JC: What was the plaza's atmosphere like?

MM: Well, back then Mexico City didn't have that many inhabitants. Our groups would gather at seven in the evening. By midnight, there was no more activity. Everything shut down!

JC: What kind of customers hired a mariachi's services?

MM: Most of the customers who hired a mariachi back then came from the states of Jalisco, Guanajuato, Michoacán, Zacatecas, and Colima. Only a few came from Nayarit, since a mariachi meant something different to them. Only rarely would a Mexico City native hire us.

JC: Where did the musicians come from?

MM: Most of Concho's group members were from Cocula; the others were from Ameca and San Martín Hidalgo. Those who played outside, as best I remember, came from places like San Julián, Guachinango, Atotonilco, Zapotlán el Grande (now Ciudad Guzmán), Guadalajara, and other parts of Jalisco.

JC: How many mariachi groups were there in all?

MM: Outside in the plaza, only five. There weren't any more than that.

JC: And how many of those groups had a trumpet player?

MM: Outside, only two: don Pedrito "Scarface," and yours truly.

JC: What about inside the Tenampa?

MM: Ah, no! They wouldn't let you play in there. That was don Concho Andrade's exclusive domain.

JC: The king of Plaza Garibaldi.

MM: Ah, yes! Don Concho was high class. No way could you compare yourself to him!

JC: Don Concho also had a trumpet player, right?

MM: His name was Candelario Salazar, better known as "El Pitayo" (a tree-like cactus plant). He was don Concho's compadre, and he played really well.

JC: Was he a better player than the two of you outside?

MM: You'd better believe it! We were street musicians, and we were in the gutter in every respect: from the way we played to the way we dressed.

JC: Were there other good trumpet players?

MM: "El Pitayo" had a brother, Jesús Salazar, who played with Mariachi Tapatío, led by José Marmolejo. Don Jesús and that group were the best there was.

JC: Did Jesús Salazar have a nickname, too?

MM: No, probably because he never worked in Plaza Garibaldi. You know, they give everyone nicknames there. They gave me two: "El Cuerno" (The Horn) and "El Trompetas" (The Trumpet)!

JC: Back then, had you ever seen Mariachi Tapatío in person?

MM: Never. I listened to them on the radio, but where was I going to see them?

JC: Not even in the movies?

MM: In the movies, yes. They seemed like gods to me!

Mariachi Vargas

JC: How was it that Silvestre Vargas invited you to join his mariachi?

MM: Mmm! Jonny, what you're asking me about didn't happen until about seven years later..

JC: Well, during that period, I assume you continued woodshedding on the trumpet.

MM: And hard! You see, I've always practiced my instrument a lot because I was and am in love with music and with the trumpet. I'm always practicing, and I suppose I will be until God calls me home!

JC: So with the passing of time, one day around 1940, Silvestre Vargas arrived in Plaza Garibaldi searching for a trumpet player.

MM: Well, Vargas came looking for a trumpeter, hoping that by adding one to his group he could get a weekly program on XEW radio, since the most they would give him at that time was one program every two weeks, whereas Mariachi Tapatío had three programs per week. Before they could make any changes to the group lineup, however, they first had to pass a sound check in the broadcast studios, particularly with the addition of an instrument as prominent as the trumpet. But Vargas didn't come looking for me, Jonny. He came looking for don Pedrito because, to be honest, he played his trumpet really well. At least that's how it sounded to me, to give credit where credit is due.

JC: So, you were the last trumpet player that Vargas approached?

MM: He left! I think don Pedro told him something like this: "Maestro Vargas, I appreciate your taking an interest in me, but I'm not going to be around here much longer. I'm going back to my village." And Vargas left! I was standing four or five steps away listening, and he didn't even notice me.

JC: But you told me that he returned about three months later.

MM: Well, he continued searching and couldn't find anyone. And where was he going to find someone if there weren't any mariachi trumpet players back then?

JC: Until one day he invited you to an audition…

MM: Well, after he realized how difficult it was to find trumpeters… Yes, there were trumpet players, but they played classical, danzón, tropical, or banda music. They didn't have the sound he was looking for. They might have been good musicians, but they didn't blend with the mariachi.

JC: You told me earlier that you'd already been playing with mariachis in Garibaldi for about seven years.

MM: I wouldn't say I got in the group because I was good. I think I got accepted because I already had mariachi experience and because I adapted to the mariachi in that audition. I also believe that God had me predestined to join Mariachi Vargas.

JC: Not one of the other trumpet players that auditioned had previously played mariachi music?

MM: No, they weren't mariachi players. To them, the mariachi was something totally new.

JC: You explained to me before that those who auditioned before you were trumpet players from popular orchestras or bands. You also mentioned the existence of classical trumpet players. I assume that back then it would have been highly unlikely that a symphony orchestra trumpeter would desire or agree to play with a mariachi group.

MM: How could you even think such a thing? That would have been inconceivable back then! Neither did Vargas ever invite musicians from those realms.

Trumpet Pedagogy

JC: When did you first meet trumpet players from other musical genres that weren't mariachis?

MM: Not until I was at radio XEW with Vargas. Before that, the only trumpet players I'd ever met were those in Garibaldi. The one who gave me the most advice was don Pedrito. But he would say: "Look, I play by ear, and I don't know whether what I'm showing you is right or wrong. Keep in mind that one blind man can lead another blind man over a cliff! You'd be better off if you found a school." He was very honest with me. I used to ask questions of many of the trumpet players at XEW. Some would give me advice, but others would say: "Look, I can't explain much to you. It would be better if you enrolled in a school." I was apprehensive about doing so, but necessity caused me to put that fear aside.

JC: You didn't yet know how to read music?

MM: Are you kidding?

JC: When did you take your first formal trumpet classes?

MM: Not until after I recognized that I needed lessons. That was in 1944 or '45, with maestro Luis Fonseca, at the Escuela Libre de Música y Declamación (a private music school in Mexico City).

 JC: Back when you began playing mariachi music, there weren't a lot of rules for the trumpet to follow.

MM: No. If you played only the introduction, a cadencial adorno (melodic figure or embellishment) at the end of each verse, and the finale, you fulfilled all the expectations. Sometimes I think that since the public didn't like the trumpet, perhaps Jesús Salazar didn't want to extend himself too much, so the trumpet wouldn't be playing too continuously - so it wouldn't be too prominent. This would have even been more the case after the owner of XEW told the artistic director that if the public continued complaining about the trumpet, the plan was to eliminate it.

JC: Did you ever feel pressured not to call attention to your instrument?

MM: Of course! That's why I practiced so much. Playing in Plaza Garibaldi didn't carry the same level of responsibility as playing over XEW. Just imagine how many more people were going to hear me!

JC: How do you describe the difference between your style and that of Jesús Salazar?

MM: Well, it's important to recognize that don Jesús was a very good player. Nonetheless, I became aware that I didn't want to copy his adornos. I admired him a lot, and I also admired don Pedrito for his sound; it was quite different from that of Candelario Salazar, don Concho's trumpet player. But I didn't want to sound like any one of those three - I aspired to something different. I didn't yet know what it was, but I knew I didn't want to imitate them.

JC: And when you joined Mariachi Vargas, you obviously had the opportunity to develop in that sense.

MM: I believe so. I wanted to take things in a different direction. For example, if the others played an ending a certain way, I would multiply the number of notes, or invert them. It took a lot of mental energy, however, to make sure I remained within the musical framework. There was always the risk that someone would ask, "What in the world are you playing?" It was always in the back of my mind that what I improvised might not be accepted. What if they didn't like it?

JC: And were there occasions when that happened?

MM: No, thank God! No one ever criticized me or said, "Don't play that," because my ideas had been thought out and rehearsed beforehand.

Rubén Fuentes

JC: About four years after you joined Mariachi Vargas, Rubén Fuentes joined, and certain musical changes began to take place in the group.

MM: He gave me a lot of tips and suggestions. He didn't know anything about the trumpet, but he would say, "Look, try and play this," and I would do so without hesitation. Perhaps not at that precise instant, but after three, four, or five times, or after woodshedding it, I'd be able to play it.

JC: Rubén Fuentes also gave more organization to the distribution of the adornos.

MM: Of course! He has tremendous musicality. What more could we ask for? He was the one who gave me my first solfège method book.

The Trumpet Duo in Mariachi Music

JC: Can you tell me briefly how you came to define and popularize the two-trumpet instrumentation in the mariachi?

MM: That was another major step! You see, there had already been recordings made with two trumpets, but these weren't well received. So Pepe Villa got this idea to form a mariachi with two trumpets. I'd recently left Mariachi Vargas, and I said to him, "You're taking a big risk, but let's try it and see what happens." And we did. He let me take the first trumpet part and my compadre Jesús Córdoba took the second. And that‘s how the first two-trumpet mariachi was born.

JC:Did the two trumpets blend right away?

MM: Very superficially. He knew the melodies one way, I another. For that reason, my compadre and I first had to get together, apart from the rest of the group, and practice adorno by adorno, song by song, until the phrasing was uniform and other details had been worked out.

 JC: So in those rehearsals, you basically pioneered the two-trumpet performance practice that's still in effect today.

MM: Yes, thank God. But don't think it was accepted right away. If, at first, the public didn't want one trumpet, even less did they want two of them!

JC: So how did the trumpet duo become popular?

MM: Radio is a powerful communications medium. When you hear something over and over again, day after day, you get used to it. After a year, those who initially didn't like the two trumpets began to accept them. The same people who at first called on the phone and wrote letters telling the station to get rid of the trumpets eventually ended up accepting them. Little by little, they became accustomed to this, like everything else. I'd like to make one more observation: about six months after my compadre Jesús and I began meeting to work out the adornos together, the number of letters and phone calls requesting that the second trumpet be eliminated had gone down by more than half - a sign that the public noticed the way our two horns were starting to blend. When I'd pass through Plaza Garibaldi on my way home, fellow musicians from the plaza would remark, "Nice job! The trumpets sounded much better on that last program." Before that, the only thing I'd heard from them was criticism about the two trumpets!

JC: And after you left Mariachi México, they continued with the two-trumpet instrumentation and performance practice you had implemented.

MM: The trademark sound had been established, and it made sense for Pepe Villa to stick with it.

Back with Mariachi Vargas

JC: After a year with Pepe Villa, you went back to Mariachi Vargas.

MM: Yes, we made peace. You know how quarrels go. A year later, Silvestre Vargas and I patched up our differences. Rubén Fuentes, whom I esteem highly, said to me, "Come on back! Why are you drifting around, when this is your group? This is where you became what you are now!" And his words were true. That was where I came into my own, after the humble mariachi where I learned my first sones, which we played so terribly! After that, Vargas was where I honed my skills, and I recognize this. So that's how I ended up going back to Mariachi Vargas.

JC: Mariachi Vargas didn't hire a permanent second trumpet player until more than a decade after Pepe Villa had done so.

MM: Vargas didn't have two trumpets until after I had left the group for good. While I was there, they only added a second trumpet sporadically - to record specific pieces, or for special programs or presentations.

JC: I know that Silvestre Vargas didn't have a personal affinity for the trumpet.

MM: I believe that if it had been left up to him, he never would have added a trumpet to his mariachi, much less a second trumpet!
JC: During the lapse of time between when you left Mariachi México (in the early fifties) until the final time you left Vargas (the mid-sixties), didn't you often run into customers who suggested that the group add a second trumpet?

MM: No, the solo trumpet tradition was well established in Mariachi Vargas. Sure, there were groups out there with two trumpets, but there were also groups with only one, and there was work for everyone. It's true that one continued to see more and more groups with two trumpets, but there are still groups today that use only one.

JC: I know that in Mariachi Vargas today there are many moments when one of the trumpet players will sit out and let the other play solo, just to preserve that older tradition. After leaving Mariachi Vargas, you continued playing with various groups. Can you name some of these?

MM: I played with them all-everyone who invited me. I was a free agent, and I didn't want the kind of commitment I'd had with Vargas, where I had to be at his beck and call 24 hours a day. I freelanced with whoever invited me. About two months after I left Mariachi Vargas, Miguel Aceves Mejía called and asked me to put together a small group for a tour of the Caribbean and parts of Central America. I agreed, and we did so. When I returned, I formed my own group, Mariachi Tolteca, and was fortunate enough to find work in hotels, nightclubs, television, and the home expo La Feria del Hogar. Six years later, I disbanded the ensemble. I didn't enjoy being a group leader. I was musical director for a number of artists such as Luis Aguilar, Manuel López Ochoa (Chucho "El Roto"), the Hermanas Huerta, "La Prieta Linda," Lupe Mejía "La Yaqui," and others. I did their arrangements as well. I also did a lot of recording sessions. I recorded with Miguel Díaz, and Arcadio Elías invited me to some freelance sessions, as did Heriberto Aceves, Alfredo Serna, Pepe Chávez, Pepe López … I recorded with whoever invited me.

The Current State of Mariachi Music

JC: What do you think of the current mariachi situation in Mexico?

MM: Well, I'm going to be frank with you. To me, the mariachi is not at the level it used to be. I feel and observe that it's in decline. Nowadays, except for five or six groups that take the trouble to rehearse, most mariachis only get together when it comes time to work. On the job, everyone plays whatever they feel like, and nobody says anything about it! It didn't used to be this way. You would rehearse a piece and get it down well before performing it. What's more, the groups were full ensembles and they remained that way. Today, on the other hand, they grab players from here, there, and everywhere, and then go off to the chamba (gig). Once it's over, they don't see each other again. What can it sound like if each musician is playing a different version of the same song? I believe that our music is being devalued because the musicians don't want to rehearse any more. I don't want to be the bearer of dire predictions, but if things continue like this, the situation is going to hit rock bottom!

JC: What do you think about the mariachi movement in the United States?

MM: Well, there it's really strong. You know, they've been bringing me to these festivals for almost 15 years, thank God, and each time I go, I see the enthusiasm that pervades every festival in the U.S. I'm not a traitor to my country, but neither am I going to speak badly of the United States - they've treated me marvelously! Now, getting back to your question - the mariachi is doing quite well in the U.S. Practicing is important to them. You know that our people who were born on the other side of the border like this music, and they practice. From one year to the next, I see the difference and the progress that the students have made with the exercises I left them. This shows that they have passion for it.

Miguel Martínez Today

JC: What are your current activities?

MM: I gig a little with the groups that invite me, and I try not to work late hours. I'm also on the board of directors of the Sociedad Mexicana de Ejecutantes de Música (SOMEM), an organization dedicated to collecting performance rights for recorded music, similar to what BMI does in the United States.

JC: You also give trumpet lessons.

MM: I teach how to fend for oneself in the mariachi, how to improve technique, how to play sones, and the students come! I favor those who love to practice, because if they show up today then don't come back for three months, how are they going to make any progress?

JC: So you're selective about your students.

MM: If we are trying to revive this, to bring it back to the level where Silvestre Vargas left it ... Vargas fought hard to bring the name of the mariachi and folklore to the place he did. If Vargas could hear how the accents to "La Negra" have been deformed, he'd turn over in his grave!

JC: I understand they make a trumpet named after you.

MM: I've been quite fortunate. The Tombstone Trumpet Company in Arizona wanted to make a Miguel Martinez model trumpet, and they asked me if this would be all right. How could I not accept their offer? I was flattered. The Olds company created the "Méndez" model for maestro Rafael Méndez, and my trumpet has "Miguel Martínez" engraved on it. I don't compare myself to my good friend, the great maestro Méndez, nor would I ever want to.

JC: Nevertheless, it pleases you that they've honored you in this manner.

MM: Of course! They distinguished me by making a trumpet that bears my name. But the point is for me to play it and use it, so people see me with it. It's the instrument I currently play on.

JC: How long has your artistic career lasted so far?

MM: Seventy years now.

JC: Are you satisfied with your career?

MM: On the one hand, yes, I feel satisfied; on the other hand, no. I still feel that if I had more time, I could contribute more to Mexican folklore.

JC: What are your plans for the future?

MM: Whatever God has in mind for me. I'll keep playing the trumpet and see what happens. When I play gigs, I don't want to be given the money as charity - I want to earn it.

JC: What can you tell us about the autobiography you are writing?

MM: So many things have happened to me in my life! The tours… can you imagine? I've worked with all the artists - Jorge Negrete, Pedro Infante, Lola Beltrán, Amalia Mendoza, María de Lourdes, Luis Aguilar, Miguel Aceves Mejía - with all of them! I worked with the Martínez Gil brothers, with Los Panchos, with the Trío Guayacán… Thank God I've worked with everyone here in Mexico, as well as in the United States with Nati Cano, Mariachi Águila, and others.

JC: All of this is going to be in your book?

MM: All of it! Everything that's happened in my artistic career: the experiences, the satisfactions, the disappointments… a thousand details. What doesn't happen on a tour?

JC: Any final comments you'd like to make?

MM: Well, I'd like to thank once again the organizers of the recent festival, where they honored my artistic achievements with a commemorative plaque in Plaza Garibaldi. I'm quite grateful to them, because they bent over backwards to do me this honor, which I feel I don't deserve.

JC: Well, thank you very much, don Miguel. Good evening, and may God bless you!

MM: Thank you. Good night.