Growing up in Topeka, Kansas, Maria and Tess Cuevas didn’t live in a Mexican-American neighborhood. So their after-school gigs were a little hard to explain to their friends.
“We’d go home and then suddenly you’d put on your sombrero and go to the car,” Tess Cuevas recalled. “It was so different. Nobody else did anything like that.”
As young children, the Cuevas sisters began learning piano and violin from their grandmother Teresa Cuevas, a musical pioneer who had founded one of the country’s first all-female mariachi groups in Topeka.
Before they were teenagers, they’d been drafted to perform in their grandmother’s group, Mariachi Estrella.
As Maria Cuevas told Gina Kaufmann on KCUR’s Central Standard, the sisters grew up singing in Spanish — but they didn’t speak Spanish at home.
Their grandmother hadn’t passed the language on to their father. At the time, she prioritized fitting in to their larger Kansas community. But when it came to teaching her grandchildren, Teresa Cuevas wanted them to learn Spanish through music.
“I remember the first time I heard my sister sing in Spanish and I saw my dad cry his eyes out and I didn’t really understand why,” Maria Cuevas said. “Now I know he was so proud, and it was something that made him feel so full and happy.”
The Cuevas sisters sing in both Spanish and English in their Kansas City band Maria the Mexican, which came together when they met guitarist and songwriter Garrett Nordstrom. He helped them form their musical identity (roots rock, they call it) and was the one who came up with the name, an homage to the Cuevas matriarch who died in 2013 (her full name was Maria Teresa Alonzo Cuevas), as well as Latin America’s everywoman.
Maria the Mexican’s new album South Of The Border Moonlight features classic mariachi songs and the first song they wrote in Spanish, a translation of one of Nordstrom’s songs.
Watch a live performance of the song "Carried Away" by Maria Cuevas and Garrett Nordstrom of Maria the Mexican in the studios at KCUR 89.3 (Tess Cuevas wasn't able to join them):
Though Maria Cuevas said the sisters “have gone in and out of being a little more fluent and a little less” in Spanish, the performance chops they learned from their grandmother are rock solid.
“It really didn’t matter how we were feeling or if we were having a bad day or, let’s say, we were nervous about going out and singing in front of people, especially in Spanish,” Cuevas said. “She would just give us a nice little push and shove us out in front and say, ‘You know you’re going to do this and you’re going to do it with a smile.’”
It’s a strategy they’ve carried on today, through the challenges of being sisters and band-mates and best friends and, along the way, sorting out what it means to be comfortable with their identities.
“You know, feeling really Mexican and being in a mariachi band, but also feeling really American, and being around people who were very unfamiliar with that, and just trying to make sense of that from a very young age,” Cuevas said.
Eight years ago, in an interview with KCUR 89.3, Teresa Cuevas said she was so pleased that her granddaughters had more choices than she ever did.
“The trouble is, even though they love mariachi music, they've seen so many things that they want to do. Isn't that beautiful? What has opened up for these two girls?"