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Remembering Kansas Mariachi Pioneer, Teresa Cuevas

Sylvia Maria Gross

Mariachi musician and founder of a groundbreaking all-female mariachi band, Teresa Cuevas, died late last year at the age of 93.

Cuevas founded Mariachi Estrella with seven other women from her church choir in 1980. They became a regional phenomenon, trading the mariachis' traditional black pants for long maroon shirts. The band played shows all over Kansas.

In July of 1981, Mariachi Estrella was scheduled to play a show at the new Hyatt Regency Hotel in Kansas City, Mo. When they got to the hotel they were on their way to change into their costumes, walking across a second-story skyway, when it suddenly collapsed. Lying in the rubble, Cuevas told KCUR in a 2006 interview, she thought she was going to die.

"Then all of a sudden a man said, 'She is alive! There's a live one!'" said Cuevas. "I grabbed his hand and they lifted it just a little bit and dragged me out of there."

Four of Cuevas' band members were among the 114 lives lost in the tragedy, which remains one of the deadliest architectural disasters in U.S. history.

After the accident, the members of Mariachi Estrella disbanded, with many of them forming their own acts. Cuevas said she decided to focus on teaching the music to her grandchildren.

Upon her death on Dec. 12, Cuevas' teaching had come full circle. Her granddaughters' band, Maria the Mexican, had just debuted their first album, "Moon Colored Jade."

Sisters Maria and Tess Cuevas studied music and performed for 10 years with their grandmother. Maria Cuevas describes her new band's sound as Americana/soul/Mexicana/groove, but she says the roots of the music go back to the mariachi she learned as a child.  Cuevas says she wants people to ask her about the band's name.

"I just want to be able to continue to tell her story and have her live on through our music," Cuevas says, "And never forget where my sister and I came from."

You can learn more about Teresa Cuevas and watch her play in this short film about Mariachi Estrella from the Kansas Humanities Council:

Sylvia Maria Gross is storytelling editor at KCUR 89.3. Reach her on Twitter @pubradiosly.
A California native, Briana comes to KCUR by way of KMUW in Wichita, Kan. and KUSP in Santa Cruz, Calif.
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