Mariachi Estrella, Kansas’ trailblazing all-women band, shines on in a new generation
In the late 1970s, a group of musicians in Topeka, Kansas, formed what became one of the first all-women mariachi bands in the country. Mariachi Estrella broke down barriers in a male-dominated music scene, before a deadly disaster almost ended the group for good. Decades later, the band’s descendants are ensuring their legacy shines on into the future.
Mariachi music runs in Marisol Chavez’ blood. The Topeka, Kansas-based musician plays in the mariachi band Mariachi Habanero, a legacy she carries on from her great-aunt Isabel "Bolie" Gonzalez, an original member of Mariachi Estrella, one of the first all-female mariachi bands in the country.
Topeka is dotted with memorials to the band — a statue of band member Teresa Cuevas stands along Kansas Avenue downtown, and a memorial to the group can be seen in front of the performing arts center.
But Chavez, who also teaches music, says most of her students don’t know the story of the seven trailblazing women who broke the mold in a male-dominated music scene in the 1980s. Or that their hometown of Topeka produced a group whose influence can be seen in mariachi music across the country.
“So it’s been like a goal and a mission of mine,” she says. “To make sure that I tell all my students about mariachi music, about Mariachi Estrella so that they’re aware.”
For her it’s deeply personal. “That’s mi familia, that’s family.”
Chavez is one of at least a half dozen other descendants of Mariachi Estrella working to make sure the music and story of their grandmothers, great-aunts and cousins stays alive.
The foundations of Mariachi Estrella
Mariachi Estrella traces its beginnings to Topeka's Oakland neighborhood. It's been home to a large Mexican-American community since the early 1900s, when Mexicans fled their country during the Mexican Revolution.
And like many new immigrant communities, the center of the neighborhood was the church — Our Lady Of Guadalupe, established in 1914.
The church was the source for all types of community services, most notably the annual Fiesta, which started in 1933 as a fundraiser full of food, dancing and music. To this day, people decorate their houses and crown a Fiesta Queen and King, says Christina Loya, a niece and cousin of some of the original members.
Loya wrote her thesis about Mariachi Estrella and her research explores how gender roles and expectations have shifted throughout generations of Mexican-Americans' lives. She says church events like the Fiesta allowed women to take leadership roles that didn’t really exist in other parts of their lives.
“Women took this deeply patriarchal institution and kind of created their own space in it,” she says. Decades later in the 1970s, the founding members of Mariachi Estrella did the same.
“Even in mariachi music, it’s very masculine. And these women came in and disrupted that,” says Loya. “Whether intentionally or not, it’s very subversive and very powerful.”
Mariachi Estrella first began as a church choir. Founding member Teresa Cuevas was in her 50s, recently divorced with five children, when she started playing in the choir. She said the group was influenced by a Guatemalan priest who taught them “happy songs.” Playing music together was an expression of their deep faith and traditions and a healing experience for Cuevas.
“The music was the part of me that made me feel like myself,” Cuevas said in a 2006 interview with KCUR.
“It’s our culture and our heritage, and everything that, you know, makes us Mexicans,” she said.
The fact that all the members were women was not necessarily intentional.
“I never heard anybody saying, 'Let’s start an all female (group),'” recalled member Isabel “Bolie” Gonzalez in the same 2006 interview. “It just happened that all of us in the choir were female.”
There were some men who played with them at the beginning, but Gonzalez said the 7 a.m. call time for rehearsal before early mass served as an accidental deterrent to many of the male members.
'Women that knew what they wanted'
Around 1980, some choir members went to a Mariachi convention in San Antonio, Texas. Rachel Galvan Sangalang said that’s when the group officially formed.
“We called it mariachi fever, that we caught,” Sangalang recalled in 2006. “It just happened to strike a chord with us.”
Gonzalez said the duality of the music — upbeat and festive, but also deeply emotional — was part of the appeal.
“Number one, it's just a lot of fun. It's fun to play and the songs … the ones that have words are just real deep. They're deep emotions, whether it's joyful or sorrow or unrequited love, whatever it is, it's real deep.”
Other founding members included Connie “Chae” Alcala, Dolores Galvan, Dolores Gonzalez Carmona and Linda Rokey Scurlock.
Cuevas, who played the violin, said each member brought something special to the music.
The women of Mariachi Estrella had a lot of fun together in those days. They taught each other different instruments and songs. Some of the members were related. There were sisters and cousins in the group, but they all felt like a family.
Their performances were joyous affairs, and they often brought their family along, encouraging young children to join in and learn.
One time they even serenaded a group of national guardsmen at a restaurant in Dodge City, Kansas. Cuevas said she could still picture the faces of the men as they were serenaded by a group of women, rather than the other way around.
“And we surrounded them, and they didn't know what to do. They looked at each other, and we kept just getting close to them, and you know, and singing, and we had a good time,” Cuevas said. “I enjoyed it. I’ll never forget it as long as I live, that was something.”
She says they also really got into the look, dressing up in the traditional trajes, with the jackets, sombreros, makeup and matching bows.
“We had to have the outfits, we had to have the hats and jewelry,” recalled Cuevas. “They (the other members) were women that knew what they wanted.”
They practiced hard, and sounded good. As they were getting more and more confident they got asked to play more shows.
For Cuevas, Mariachi Estrella was the ultimate gift. “God just, it seemed to me that He gave us all this group.”
But on July 17, 1981, Mariachi Estrella’s story was cut tragically short.
That day, Mariachi Estrella was set to play at the new Hyatt Regency Hotel in Kansas City, Missouri. The hotel was hosting a tea dance event that night, and the party was packed — more than 1,500 people attended.
At approximately 7:05 p.m., six members of Mariachi Estella were walking across the second story skywalk — one of the defining features of the hotel lobby — when the skywalk above them collapsed, causing the bridge they were on to crumble and fall to the ground.
The Hyatt regency disaster remains one of the deadliest accidental structural building failures in United States history. More than 200 people were injured and 114 people were killed. Among them were Connie “Chae” Alcala, Dolores Gonzalez Carmona, Dolores Galvan and Linda Rokey Scurlock, four members of Mariachi Estrella.
Isabel “Bolie” Gonzalez was nursing her daughter and didn’t go to out-of-town performances. “My daughter will tell you she saved my life,” Gonzalez said.
Sangalang and Cuevas ended up trapped in the rubble.
“I said ‘Padre Santo ayúdame,’” recalled Cuevas. “And then all of a sudden a man said, ‘She’s alive.'” Cuevas grabbed his hand and was pulled out of the debris. “I felt that God saved me, and he saved me so I could be a better mother. And after that I devoted myself to my family, and I was a different person.”
Our Lady of Guadalupe Church put together a big spread in their annual Fiesta yearbook memorializing the group a year after the tragedy.
Looking back at that remembrance is still emotional for Loya, who lost her great-aunt and cousin in the disaster. It’s also where, while conducting research, she came across a quote that continues to influence her work.
“So shortly before her death, Connie 'Chae' was asked about what being part of Mariachi Estrella meant to her,” Loya says.
“And she said, ‘It’s in my heart, I just want to see it carried on. I don’t want it to die out.’”
Carrying on a legacy
Loya believes research like hers is a crucial part of keeping her aunt’s dream alive. And she’s not the only family member who has dedicated their life to carrying on Mariachi Estrella.
Maria Cuevas is doing it through her music.
Cuevas fronts the band Maria the Mexican with her sister, Teresa. The band is a fusion of mariachi, rock and Americana. It’s directly inspired by their grandmother Teresa Cuevas, and the time they spent playing together in Mariachi Estrella when they were kids.
“My sister and I always joke, were weren’t asked. We were simply told what we would do. Looking back, I’m really grateful for that,” says Cuevas.
Her grandmother, Teresa Cuevas, was badly injured in the Hyatt Regency disaster. But once she healed she immediately started playing for the church again, as did the other remaining members. While they eventually spun off to play with different mariachi groups, Cuevas held onto the name Mariachi Estrella and focused on passing the music on to her grandchildren.
Cuevas died in 2013 at the age of 93. Her family says she played her violin all the way until the end.
Maria Cuevas says she hopes others will be inspired by her grandmother’s story, as a woman who started one of the first all female mariachi bands later in life, overcame a major tragedy and just kept going.
“It’s like, it’s never too late,” says Cuevas. “It’s never too late to start something you could be creating a huge part of your life and legacy.”
David Chavez, whose aunts played in Mariachi Estrella, says their influence can be seen in mariachi music today.
“Now you look today, and there’s all female groups everywhere,” David Chavez says. “That’s super cool, and that came from somewhere.”
Chavez remembers seeing Mariachi Estrella in his youth. Today he runs a live events company that brings some of the biggest mariachi bands to Topeka and Kansas City.
He organized a series of mariachi concerts to help raise funds for a monument to Mariachi Estrella, titled “Mariachi Divina!” It was erected in 2006 in front of the performing arts center in downtown Topeka. It honors the women whose lives were lost during the tragedy in 1981 and celebrates the group’s lasting legacy.
He also produced a documentary about the group called "Mariachi Estrella: Ad Astra Per Aspera," which is the state motto of Kansas and means “to the stars through difficulties.”
“Their story’s not going away,” he says.
Michelle Stubblefield, another granddaughter of Teresa Cuevas, is doing her part, too. As a promoter of Latino civic leadership, she led the effort to have a bronze, life-sized statue made in her grandmother’s likeness on Kansas Avenue in downtown Topeka.
“To acknowledge the women in this community who’ve done amazing things, and keep the Hispanic community recognized,” says Stubblefield, who played in Mariachi Estrella as a kid.
Unveiled last May, it's the only statue of a woman within a series of statues of prominent Kansans displayed on that main thoroughfare.
Educator and musician Marisol Chavez believes all these efforts combined are powerful and important. It was her great aunt, member Isabel "Bolie" Gonzalez, who encouraged her at a young age to play music at the church choir. That’s where she taught herself how to play and how she decided that she wanted to pursue her dream as a musician.
It fuels her mission of spreading the spirit of mariachi music and the story of Mariachi Estrella far and wide.
“I’m a product of these women,” says Chavez. “I think mariachi music is just so special. And I want to share it with everybody.”
This episode of A People's History of Kansas City was reported, produced and mixed by Suzanne Hogan with editing by Lisa Rodriguez, C.J. Janovy, and Mackenzie Martin.