By the mid-20th century, mariachi music had become a widely popular symbol of Mexican culture, played by radio stations and featured in charro films during the country’s Golden Age of cinema, from 1935 to 1959. By then, the music had become popular in Central and South America and the United States.
The 1980s saw the genre fade as radio buzzed with more commercially successful music such as norteno and banda, which includes lyrics about drug trafficking, or pop music.
Now, few hit songs are done in the mariachi style, and only a handful of places in this metropolis of 20 million feature live, professional mariachi bands.
The genre’s absence in the mass media and intellectual circles also contributed to its decline, said anthropologist Jesus Jauregui, the top expert on the music in Mexico.
‘‘The place mariachi bands get in movies nowadays is not very dignified because they are usually second-rate characters who are accompanying the singer,’’ Jauregui said. ‘‘Another factor is the contempt with which the Mexican intelligentsia treats mariachi. No historian or sociologist, musicologist or folklore expert has done studies on mariachi music.’’
Nonetheless, mariachi retains deep roots in Mexican culture, with many people knowing by heart longtime favorites. Almost every big event in Mexico, from weddings and funerals to Mother’s Day celebrations, includes a mariachi band, and abroad, the music offers a tie for many Mexicans to their native land. Most of that music is amateurish at best.
The handful of top mariachi stars left can nonetheless still fill auditoriums in Mexico, and fans can catch the best mariachi at occasional festivals.
‘‘In the United States, the music is viewed with more respect and that has to do with the fact that they teach it in junior high schools and in high schools and that doesn’t happen in Mexico,’’ Jauregui said.
Soto’s school has tried to turn that around by hiring some of the best musicians in the business, including former members of the group Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlan, which continues to tour worldwide, often performing with classical orchestras and symphonies.
If anything, the market has shown it'll pay more for higher quality mariachi, said Victor Lemus, 44, who has played violin with Los Emperadores in Plaza Garibaldi for the last 22 years.
Many in the 14-member ensemble have taken private music classes, and they practice twice a week. That lets them charge twice the average rate of $8 (100 pesos) per song for bands with six members.
Still, on a recent night, none of the Mexican and foreign revelers dancing to the energetic two-step rhythms at the plaza seemed to mind that most of the bands lacked polish, instead requesting songs until they ran out of money or energy.
‘‘Most mariachis right now just put on the charro suit and go out to the street to play and they forget that after the flag, the mariachi is what best represents Mexico,’’ Lemus said. ‘‘But if the new generations learn to play it like it should be, they will ennoble the music.’’