Traditional Mariachi Revival

In early 2000 Los Cenzontles director Eugene Rodriguez began looking for someone to teach the group about the traditions of the long forgotten rural style of the traditional mariachi. Throughout the 1990’s he promoted the rural fandango style of the son Jarocho from Veracruz in California (Read the Fandango Project history). Fandangos are popular social dances centered around regional folk music that thrived throughout Mexico in the 1800’s including Jalisco where the mariachi was born. The fandango is the most traditional setting for folk music and is a powerful model for teaching young people to connect to themselves, family, community. As the fandango project of the son Jarocho was very successful, Eugene felt eager to plant that approach to other Mexican regional music that represented the origins of Mexican Americans living in their community – namely people from Jalisco and Michoacan. All educational programs that arose in the the USA during past 50 years of mariachi revival promote the more recent tradition of the large mariachi orchestra playing an international repertory that arose in the 1930’s and 40’s from Mexican cinema. But traditional mariachi was a more improvised small string ensemble that accompanied dancers in local and regional rhythms.

Eugene had thought it would be near impossible to find such a person since the enormous popularity of the mariachi orchestra eclipsed its own rural roots, becoming the ubiquitous international symbol of Mexico. Luckily Eugene learned of an elder living in the San Francisco Peninsula named Julian Gonzalez Saldaña who knew the old style.

Don Julian Gonzalez Saldaña

At the time Los Cenzontles met Don Julian, born in 1935 in Southern Jalisco, he was working as a custodian in a food market. Don Julian lived his life mostly as a jinete or cowboy on the ranch of Camichines, municipality of Juchitlán, until his mid 40’s. His grandfather, uncles, and father played the old music and Julian was blessed with an extraordinary memory for the details for the style. The traditional mariachi repertory was rooted in the difficult life of hacienda workers. Musicians did not wear fancy urban charro outfits borrowed from gentry horsemen, but rather peasant manta, and played music on their time off from working hard in the cane fields. Julian spoke often of that life and the meaning of the lyrics that most urban mariachis do not know and never lived. His old renditions of well-known sones abajeños and traditional bowings on the violin did not fit modern mariachis so he was not often called for gigs with Bay Area mariachis. And while many of them expressed an interest in learning some old sones, they never took time to do so. In other words, the mariachi had outlived the essence of what the mariachi was.


In 1997 Julian and three elder musicians formed a traditional mariachi called Los Centenarios in order to compete in the category of traditional mariachi at the International Mariachi Festival in Guadalajara, Jalisco at which they took second place. He soon moved to California to make a living.

Los Centenarios

In July, 2000 four members of Los Cenzontles began occasional visits to Don Julian’s small apartment in Belmont, CA to begin their studies. Eugene Rodriguez on vihuela, Tregar Otton on violin, Hugo Arroyo on guitarron, and Lucina Rodriguez, dancing.  Julian presented the group a tiny handwritten piece of paper with the names of the sones abajeños that he could teach. This would be their guide list for the future creation of four albums.


In 2001 Los Cenzontles received an Apprenticeship grant from the Alliance for California Traditional Arts to work weekly with Julian. They learned the basics and nuances of the music son by son and instrument by instrument. It took a great deal of time for the group members to divest themselves from what they knew about mariachi to learn Julian’s style. The violin bowings, the vihuela strumming, the placement of the bass notes and the dance steps were all different than contemporary renditions. As a musico lirico, Julian learned and taught from his memory. And as he constantly worked to polish his recollection, he would often correct the versions from one session to the next.


Among first sones abajeños that Los Cenzontles learned were El Pitayero, El Tesmo and Los Arrieros, the last of which was a version that only Julian knew. The group included those pieces on their 2001 Cuatro Maestros album.

Cuatro MaestrosCuatro Maestros w/ Los Cenzontles

Cuatro Maestros was a statewide tour in the summer of 2001 produced by Los Cenzontles with support from the California Arts Council. It featured four regional styles of music represented by four elder masters, members of their groups when possible, and Los Cenzontles. Julian Gonzalez of Jalisco; Atilano Lopez Patricio of Indigenous Michoacan; Andres Vega and Mono Blanco of Veracruz; and Santiago Jimenez Jr. of San Antonio, Tx.

Julian Gonzalez, Andres Vega, Santiago Jimenez Jr., Atilano Lopez

The tour was presented at Sacramento State University; Arte Americas, Fresno; Grand Performances, Los Angeles; City of San Fernando; CSU Monterey Bay; Julia Morgan Theater, Berkeley; and the Mexican Heritage Plaza, San Jose. They also performed live at the UC Davis radio, KDTV, Univision, and KPFK radio. The public greeted the performances with great interest and enthusiasm. Ten years earlier, public acceptance of rural music was difficult. But after years of promotion, Los Cenzontles and others had made a real impact changing public bias against rural music. However, most renditions of traditional folk music were academic or ‘boring’ as one promoter remarked. But Los Cenzontles approached tradition with vitality and spontaneity. Julian lived the music. And with Los Cenzontles he brought life to it.

For the Cuatro Maestros tour Los Cenzontles performed with ranchero shirts purchased from Mexican cowboy stores. Lucina and her female dancers wore dresses created for them by France Do and Marie-Astrid Do-Rodriguez. They began creating outfits for the musicians as well based on Don Julian’s memory of the outfits worn by traditional mariachis of his youth.

Los Cenzontles in traditional outfits

In March, 2002 Los Cenzontles Traditional Mariachi with Julian Gonzalez was invited to perform at the Selland Auditorium for the Fresno Mariachi Festival produced by Radio Bilingue. The group also performed at the reception for famed Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlan whose members were intrigued by the group’s vintage style.


Also, in March, Los Cenzontles and Julian Gonzalez released their first album of sones, Plan de la Villa. For the album cover, as well as subsequent albums, the group used old photos of a young Julian.

Plan de la VillaPlan De La Villa

The group began to perform increasingly. In 2002, Los Cenzontles and Julian returned to Los Angeles to perform for a full house at the auditorium of the Getty Museum. Other performance venues around that time included the Scottish Rite Theater, Oakland, San Pablo Quermez produced by Los Cenzontles, Sacramento State University, and the Sacramento State Fair opening for Los Lobos.

Los Cenzontles w/ Los Lobos

In the summer of 2002 Julian taught the students of Los Cenzontles to dance a traditional 12 movement danza, Danza de los Copetones, accompanied by the Los Cenzontles Traditional Mariachi,  Danzas are reverential pieces that exist throughout Mexico Danza de los Copetones one was from his region. With France Do and Marie-Astrid Do-Rodriguez Julian directed the construction of the costumes.

The group continued to learn new sones from Julian and introduced some canciones rancheras and corridos as well. They also began to include the female vocal duet of Fabiola Trujillo and Lucina Rodriguez. Julian taught them the vocal phrasing of traditional songs.  In 2002 the group released its second volume of sones and songs in El Pasajero, volume 2 album of traditional mariachi.

El PasajeroEl Pasajero

In March, 2003 Los Cenzontles and Julian Gonzalez returned to perform at the Fresno Mariachi Festival.

Son de la Negra, LC Academy
In March and April, 2003 Los Cenzontles produced a groundbreaking homecoming tour for Don Julian of Jalisco and Nayarit to present the traditional mariachi. The tour was designed to provoke the memories of elders through the performances of forgotten traditions and incite curiosity of young people who did not know about the roots of Mexico’s most famous tradition.

Los Cenzontles hired a bus and production crew to tour the state of Jalisco and perform in Guadalajara, and the pueblos of Tamazulita, Concepcion de Buenos Aires, Tapalpa, Tuxpan, Tecolotlan, Pihuamo, Zapotiltic, and Tepic, Nayarit.  Los Cenzontles hired local groups to open each performance in the main plazas of each pueblo. The group was received officially by local leaders in each location and the public adored the shows.

Pasajero Travel Clip
This 10 day trip, funded by the US Mexico Fund for Culture, was featured in the film Pasajero, A Journey of Time and Memory. Director Ricardo Braojos accompanied by cameraman Oscar Carrillo filmed the tour and interviewed members of the public and elder musicians that the group encountered along the way.

Mariachi Fresnal, Pihuamo, Jalisco
For Don Julian, the highlight of the tour, which was a highlight of his life, was returning to his hometown of Tecolotolan where he was treated like a returning hero.

The Pasajero documentary also sought to tell the story of mariachis in California. The group performed in Gilroy, CA, Richgrove, CA, and Lamont, CA, conducted workshops for students, and interviewed elder musicians.

Elders in Mexico and California
In July, 2003 the traditional mariachi of Los Cenzontles and Julian Gonzalez were featured at the San Jose Mariachi Festival. Additional concerts at that time occurred at Sacramento State University, Bakersfield, Visalia and the Chico World Music Festival.


Famed mariachi Nati Cano of Mariachi Los Camperos, who was interviewed for the Pasajero documentary, was intrigued by Los Cenzontles’ work with Julian Gonzalez. He traveled to the Bay Area from Los Angeles twice to visit Los Cenzontles. Impressed by the depth and quality of the research and the music, Nati invited the traditional mariachi to perform at his Fiesta Navidad program at the Universal Amphitheater and Orange County Performing Arts Center in November, 2003.

In February 2004, Los Cenzontles and Julian Gonzalez opened for Norte no super group Los Tigres del Norte at the Fox Theater, Redwood City.


The group releases the third volume of traditional sones abaneños, rancheras and corridos,  El Chivo. Volume 3.

El Chivo: Traditional Mariachi Volume IIIEl Chivo

In 2004, the documentary Pasajero, A Journey of Time and Memory, directed by Ricardo Braojos and produced by Eugene Rodriguez, is released.

(Click to watch documentary)

Pasajero is screened, sometimes accompanied by live performances, at Arpa Festival, Los Angeles Arc Theater; Alameda County Office of Education; Chicago Latino Film Festival; St. Mark’s Catholic Church, Richmond, CA; Veteran’s Building, Alameda, CA; Migrant Education Conference, Bakersfield, CA;  Smithsonian Institute, Washington D.C.; Julia Morgan Center for the Arts, Berkeley, CA; Gene Siskel Film Theater, Chicago, IL; Morelia International Film Festival;  Community School of Music, Mountain View, CA; Ozark Foothills Film Festival, Batesville, Heber Springs, Arkansas; Toby’s Feedbarn, Pt. Reyes, CA; the Veracruz University, Xalapa, Veracruz; and the Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City, Mexico.

From 2004 to 2008 Los Cenzontles and Julian Gonzalez performed at a variety of venues that include the Chicago Old Town School of Music, Chicago Children’s Museum, Colibri Gallery, Meztli Gallery, in Chicago, IL; National Association of Latino Arts and Culture conference, Kansas City, MO;  the Carriage House, Villa Montalvo, Saratoga, CA; Grant Elementary School, Oakland, CA; Community Music Center, San Francisco, CA; Festival de Mariachi, Bakersfield College, Bakersfield, CA; Sonoma Plaza Fiesta, Sonoma, CA; Special Events Center, Boise State University, Idaho; Vacaville Performing Arts Theater, Vacaville, CA; Taylor Auditorium, University of Southern Missouri, Joplin, Missouri; Latino Arts Inc., Milwaukee, Wisconsin; Milwaukee Area Technical College; Hot House, Chicago, Il;  Tama Hall, Hawkeye Community College, Waterloo, Iowa; the University of the Pacific, Stockton, CA; San Jose Mariachi Festival; San Jose Convention Center;  San Jose Discovery Museum;  Hogg Auditorium, the University of Texas at Austin; Winchester Theater, Las Vegas, NV; City of Henderson, NV;  Ashkenaz Community Center, Berkeley, CA;  Freight & Salvage, Berkeley, CA; Sonoma County Bluegrass Festival, Sebastopol, CA; Dia del Nino Concert, Mexican Heritage Plaza, San Jose, CA; the Pickleweed Community Center, San Rafael, CA; El Campanil Theater, Antioch, CA;  West Side Theater, Newman, CA; Bishop Center, Aberdeen, WA; Dia de la Familia, Mexican Heritage Plaza, San Jose; Chico World Music Festival, Chico, CA; San Jose Mariachi Festival, San Jose, CA; Historic Ritz Theater, Brunswick, Georgia;  Café Du Nord, San Francisco, CA; San Francisco Free Folk Festival, SF; The American Theater, Hampton, VA; Rialto Center for the Arts, Atlanta, GA; and the Atlanta History Center, Atlanta, GA.

Los Copetones, University of Texas at Austin

La Milpa, University of Texas at Austin
The group releases its fourth volume of sones abajeños, rancheras, and corridos in its El Toro Viejo, Traditional Mariachi Volume 4.

El Toro Viejo

After a triumphant pledge drive broadcast at KVPT, Public Television Fresno, CA, Pasajero is distributed by American Public Television and broadcast across the country at PBS stations that include:


KLUX, Las Vegas, NV, WCEU, Orlando, FL, WNPT, Nashville, TN, KCOS, El Paso, TX, WYIN, Chicago, IL, WFPT, Washington DC, WWPB, Washington DC, WGPT, Pittsburgh, PA, WMPB, Baltimore, MD, WXEL, West Palm Beach, FL, WCPB, Salisbury, MD, KVIE, Stockton, CA, WCVN Cincinnati OH, WKON Cincinnati OH, WKPC Louisville KY, WKZT Louisville KY, KET Lexington KY, WKHA Lexington KY, WKLE Lexington KY, WKMR Lexington KY, WKSO Lexington KY, WKAS Charleston Huntington WV, WKPI Charleston Huntington WV, WKMU Paducah KY- Cape Girardeau MO- Harrisburg KY, WKPD Paducah KY- Cape Girardeau MO- Harrisburg KY, WKMA Evansville IN, WKOH Evansville IN, WKGB Bowling Green KY, KOCE, Los Angeles CA, KQED, San Francisco Oakland San Jose CA, KERA, Dallas Fort Worth TX,WPBA, Atlanta GA, WCVN Cincinnati OH, WKON Cincinnati OH, KLRN, San Antonio TX, KLRN `San Antonio TX, WGVK Grand Rapids Kalamazoo Battle Creek MI, WGVU Grand Rapids Kalamazoo Battle Creek MI, WKPC, Louisville KY, WKZT, Louisville KY, KVPT, Fresno Visalia CA, KET, Lexington KY, WKHA Lexington KY, WKLE, Lexington KY, WKMR Lexington KY, WKSO, Lexington KY, WKAS, Charleston Huntington WV, WKPI, Charleston Huntington WV, KOZK, Springfield MO, WKPD, Paducah KY- Cape Girardeau MO- Harrisburg KY, WEIU, Champaign  Springfield  Decatur IL, WTCI, Chattanooga TN, KCOS, El Paso TX, WKMA Evansville IN, WKOH Evansville IN, KOZJ, Joplin MO Pittsburg KS, WKGB, Bowling Green KY, WBGU Lima OH, KVCR, Los Angeles, WYBE, Philadelphia, KTEH, San Francisco Oakland, KVCR, Los Angeles, WYBE, Philadelphia, KCAH, San Francisco, KCSM, San Mateo, KTEH, San Jose, WFPT, Washington DC, WWPB, Washington DC, WVIZ, Cleveland, WGPT, Pittsburgh, WMPB Baltimore, KUEN, Salt Lake City, WNED, Buffalo, WJCT, Jacksonville, FL, WCPB, Salisbury, MD, KTNED Cheyenne, WY.


In January, 2007 Los Cenzontles host a special commemoration for Julian Gonzalez for family and friends at LC Academy.

La Iguana – El Campanil Theater, Antioch, CA

Los Arrieros, El Campanil Theater, Antioch, CA
In 2007 Los Cenzontles and Julian Gonzalez were invited to appear on The Chieftains and Ry Cooder San Patricio album. San Francisco, CA.


In 2009 Los Cenzontles and Julian Gonzalez appeared live with legendary Irish group The Chieftains at the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival, San Francisco

Don Julian Gonzalez at Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival

Don Julian Gonzalez suffered a series of strokes that forced his retirement. He currently lives in his pueblo of Teocolotlan, Jalisco with his family. Los Cenzontles are forever grateful for all that he taught them about his traditions and the life that gave birth and supported those traditions. Every lyric sung in the old sones relate to the life of countryside and Don Julian knew the meaning of them all. He knew which way the bow was to be tied on the traditional jackets and what a tilted hat on either side of the head signified. He lived the life of the mariachi and that was translated into everything that he played. He shared that deep knowledge with Los Cenzontles and they in turn have dedicated themselves to teaching new generations to dance, sing and play the wonderful traditions of the son abajeño of the traditional mariachi.

El Pitayero, Los Cenzontles Juvenil, 2015
With great pride the traditional mariachi Los Cenzontles and Julian Gonzalez was featured in the Corazon de la Comunidad Mariachi Exhibit at the LA Plaza de Cultura y Artes in 2015-1016.

Featured LC exhibit at LA Plaza de Cultura y Artes

The goal of the traditional mariachi project was to demonstrate the strength, dignity and beauty of traditional rural Mexican music since it had lived under appreciated for generations. Today there are increasing number of groups that proudly and authentically play rural Mexican music from many regions. Los Cenzontles feel extremely proud of any role that it has had in helping to inspire others to embrace and dedicate themselves to Mexico’s most valuable heritage.