In Southwest Detroit, A New Generation of Mariachi Musicians Take the Stage

Camilla-Isabella Cantu is a self-taught musician who founded Mariachi Femenil Detroit — a female-led mariachi band billed as the only one of its kind in Detroit.

When musician Camilla-Isabella Cantu was 13-years-old, she was recruited to join a youth mariachi group in southwest Detroit where she grew up.

She quickly noticed something odd — she was the only female performer currently in the group.

“There’s a history of women mariachis being in the mix but just not having the same presence as the men ones,” says Cantu. “I’ve definitely seen that change in my time in mariachi.”

 “I always think about the little girls who are watching who one day might want to perform mariachi music.” — Camilla-Isabella Cantu, musician

Courtesy of Mariachi Femenil Detroit
Courtesy of Mariachi Femenil Detroit

Now 20-years-old and attending college, Cantu is leading her own band — Mariachi Femenil Detroit. They’re billed as the only female-led mariachi group in the city, joining a growing number of similar groups in New York (the Grammy-nominated Flor De Toloache) and Los Angeles (Mariachi Lindas Mexicanas).

From its origins as folk music dating back to the 18th century in the western countryside of Mexico, mariachi music has been male-dominated. 

When women do make it into the band, they’re often regulated to singing instead of playing the guitarrón (a large, bass-like guitar) or the vihuela — a 5-string instrument that’s smaller than a guitar but louder, used to often provide percussion to the mariachi sound.

Cantu, who taught herself the vihuela, says she wants to break down the stereotypes of who can play what instrument.

“The biggest names [in mariachi] have been historically men,” says Cantu. “It really does make a difference for people to see a group led by a woman. I always think about the little girls who are watching who one day might want to perform mariachi music.”

What does a female-led mariachi band sound like? Click the audio player to listen to the full conversation with Camilla-Isabella Cantu

Like many other types of performers, Mariachi Femenil Detroit has seen their busy season of summer weddings and outdoor performances cancelled or postponed due to COVID-19.

“It’s been a hard time for us,” says Cantu. “We had about eight gigs lined up for May that went out the window after the stay-at-home order.”

Cantu says she’s eagerly anticipating when she can get back to performing regularly.

“It’s something I’ll never take for granted again,” says Cantu. “It’s something that we’re all going to appreciate a little bit more.”

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  • Ryan Patrick Hooper

    Ryan Patrick Hooper is the award-winning host and producer of CultureShift on 101.9 WDET-FM Detroit’s NPR station. Hooper has covered stories for the New York Times, NPR, Detroit Free Press, Hour Detroit, SPIN and Paste magazine.