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'Our Soul Music Is Mariachi Music': Houston's Mexican Mass

Jess Escalante (right), the 70-year-old founder of Mariachi Norteno, plays his guitarrón in a recent Mass for Our Lady of Guadalupe inside St. Joseph Catholic Church in Houston. He's joined by Jose Martinez.
John Burnett
Jess Escalante (right), the 70-year-old founder of Mariachi Norteno, plays his guitarrón in a recent Mass for Our Lady of Guadalupe inside St. Joseph Catholic Church in Houston. He's joined by Jose Martinez.

It's a musical tradition found in Mexican-American enclaves mostly in southwestern U.S. cities. The mariachi Mass brings an ensemble of garishly dressed folk musicians — with their guitars, trumpets and violins — right down to the front of the church, where they play liturgical music as part of the Order of Mass. Some Catholics can't imagine celebrating the Feast of the Virgin of Guadalupe on Dec. 12 without a mariachi Mass.

" Viva nuestra Senora de Guadalupe!" the Rev. Francis Macatangay intones; he's priest of St. Joseph Catholic Church in Houston's historic Sixth Ward.

" Viva!" the congregation replies.

Then the sanctuary of the grand old red-brick church fills with the sounds of a guitar, a bajo sexto(big guitar), a vihuela (small guitar), two violins and a trumpet. The service has begun. Members of Mariachi Norteno, dressed in their black decorated charro suits, play their instruments in front of a large picture of the patron saint of Mexico.

Renewal Of Liturgy

The creation of the mariachi Mass was a direct result of the Second Vatican Council's reforms to Roman Catholic liturgy in 1963.

"At the end of the Vatican Council, the Vatican said for the renewal of the liturgy, the local genius of the people should be used in the art, in the music," says the Rev. Virgilio Elizondo, a longtime priest in San Antonio and professor of pastoral and Hispanic theology at the University of Notre Dame. "Our soul music is mariachi music."

In 1966, the bishop of Cuernavaca, Mexico, Sergio Mendez Arceo, commissioned a mariachi folk Mass that came to be called la Misa Panamericana,the Panamerican Mass. Written by a Canadian priest, Juan Marco Leclerc, it has become the standard repertoire of mariachis in church.

Pat Jasper, director of folklife and traditional arts at the Houston Arts Alliance, says that to her knowledge, Mariachi Norteno — founded in 1959 — introduced the Panamerican Mass to the U.S. "But maybe more important than that," she adds, "they perhaps are the only group that has continued to play that Mass every week for the last 45 years."

The mariachi Mass came to Houston because of a music-loving parish priest at St. Joseph named Patricio Flores, who sang in cantinas before he entered the priesthood. In Mexico, la Misa Panamericana became an overnight sensation, drawing large crowds and eventually moving into the Cuernavaca cathedral. Flores heard about the Mass and organized a trip to Cuernavaca in 1967 with members of Mariachi Norteno. They listened, they brought it back to Texas, and they've been playing it ever since at the 12:30 service.

Father Flores went on to become Archbishop Flores — the Catholic Church's first Mexican-American bishop. When he moved to the Archdiocese of San Antonio in 1970, he brought his affection for Mexican folk music with him, encouraging local parishes to begin mariachi Masses and even singing with groups when he visited Mexican restaurants. He earned the nickname "the mariachi bishop."

But just because Vatican II invited mariachis into church didn't mean they were always welcome. Some parishioners didn't think cantina music belonged in the Order of Mass alongside the Kyrie eleison, Gloria and Alleluia. They said it was loud and undignified.

"There was some resistance in the Catholic Church," says guitarist Jose Martinez, a 69-year-old retired refinery worker and an original member of Mariachi Norteno. "Some of the priests said, 'No, you can't play that kind of music in my church.' And, slowly but surely, they started getting used to it."

Spreading The Mariachi Gospel

The group has a few younger members now. Robert Vasquez, 33, plays the vihuela, a smallish guitarlike instrument; his father, Guadalupe, is the group's original trumpeter. Robert says performing the Panamerican Mass is altogether different from playing "Jalisco" or "Paloma Negra" at weddings.

"It's a lot deeper because you're here with God," Vasquez says. "It's different. I mean, mariachi music is not like the note is supposed to go this long. You gotta have the feeling. I can honestly say I don't hear another mariachi Mass the way that we play it here. It's probably the best."

Not surprisingly, the Panamerican Mass is performed most often in Southern border states. But the Rev. Virgilio Elizondo says he has heard it all over the country, from New York City to Peoria.

"This last weekend, I was at Yale University for their Our Lady of Guadalupe Mass," he said recently. "They had a fantastic mariachi choir. So it has really spread."

As the Latino population continues to surge in the U.S., the sound of violins and trumpets in church is likely to spread even further.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

As NPR's Southwest correspondent based in Austin, Texas, John Burnett covers immigration, border affairs, Texas news and other national assignments. In 2018, 2019 and again in 2020, he won national Edward R. Murrow Awards from the Radio-Television News Directors Association for continuing coverage of the immigration beat. In 2020, Burnett along with other NPR journalists, were finalists for a duPont-Columbia Award for their coverage of the Trump Administration's Remain in Mexico program. In December 2018, Burnett was invited to participate in a workshop on Refugees, Immigration and Border Security in Western Europe, sponsored by the RIAS Berlin Commission.