Los Changuitos Feos instilled cultural pride in countless youths while helping them blossom into musicians and other professionals. The group celebrates its 40th anniversary with a reunion concert.
It seems impossible to believe, given the popularity of mariachi music throughout America today and its vital place in our community, that all of this profound change could have come from a single seed that took root here in Tucson – Los Changuitos Feos (the Ugly Little Monkeys).
This singular youth mariachi has produced some of the foremost musicians in music today, and, through its scholarship fund, helped educate hundreds of young professional Hispanics and Anglos. It also became an example to the world of how to instill cultural pride and connection to heritage in youth, families and the community. It helped generations of kids reconnect with the language, families and the profound beauty of their culture. And it served as a model that has given schools in Tucson and across the country a hip, socially relevant alternative to stagnant band and orchestra programs – mariachi and folklórico education.
Among the fruits of the Chango tree is the Tucson International Mariachi Conference, the longest continually running concert and education program of its kind in the country. The conference has put young performers side by side with the best musicians in the genre to learn directly from the source and raised the artistic bar as to what might be achieved. Another is Mariachi Cobre, one of the foremost groups in the artform, spreading the gospel of mariachi music through its gig in Disney EPCOT’s Mexico Pavilion and its symphonic collaborations around the country. The core membership of the group was among the first ranks of the Changos, and it now boasts multiple generations of Chango alumni.
It’s fitting that, as the Changuitos celebrate their 40th anniversary this weekend, Mariachi Cobre will headline that reunion event, joined by Tejano superstar Adalberto, another Chango alumnus; the father of Chicano music and composer of the unofficial national anthem of Mexico (“Cancion Mexicana”), Lalo Guerrero; as well as other alumni and the current generation to proudly don the traje of Los Changuitos Feos.
Founded in 1964 as a Catholic Youth Organization project by the Rev. Charles Rourke, a jazz-pianist priest from Schenectady, N.Y., the group early on established a tradition of musical excellence at home and on tour around the country. Rourke’s successor, the Rev. Richard Butler, propelled the group even further into the limelight with expanded touring. Both priests would later be disgraced in the pedophile scandals that recently bankrupted the Tucson diocese.
It fell upon former Marine and Chango parent Joe Mendoza in the mid-1970s to pick up the pieces and turn the Changos into a secular musical force to be reckoned with. For 26 years, Mendoza led the group to national championships, appearances at the Clinton inaugural parade and countless tour stops. He also helped other communities around the country establish youth programs based on the Changos. After health problems sidelined the joyful former singer in 2000, another Chango parent, Betty Villegas, took the reins of the Changos, continuing the traditions of excellence, community service and education.
In the past few months, the Citizen has talked with many former and current Changos, parents and figures instrumental in its birth and growth. Here is some of what they had to say about their Chango experiences and how the group changed their lives.
‘Being at the (Tucson International Mariachi) conference when Mariachi Vargas was there. (Its music director) Pepe Martinez apparently pointed to me and said, “She’s got her bowing. As a mariachi she knows what she’s doing.” I was melting.’
Bridget Keating, first female Changos violinist in the early 1980s, speaking of Mariachi Vargas, regarded as the best in the world.
‘That group of (26-year Changuitos director Joe Mendoza’s) and Changos has created really some of the best musicians in the world. I don’t know of any other single youth group, whether it’s a school or something, that has even come close. This is Juilliard of the mariachi world.’
Jeff Nevin, Ph.D. in music theory and composition; founder of the first accredited college-level mariachi program; author of “Virtuoso Mariachi;” Changuito in early 1980s
‘There are no words to describe the rewards. When you see your child performing – singing – and they look at you and they’re singing to someone and bringing someone joy with this beautiful music. As one brother to brother, when things aren’t going so well, my older son will turn to my younger son and say, “Don’t forget. You’re a Chango. Make us proud.”‘
Lupita Bachelier: Parent board representative, Mother of current member Daniel and Adrian, a former Chango
‘When they had functions, the parents would help out… The mothers cooked and the fathers helped with the booths. When they would travel, if they were going somewhere close to Tucson, some of the fathers would drive. We also had Christmas parties and we’d cook for them. We’d invite the grandparents, uncles and cousins. We did have a lot of fun.’
Emma Carrillo, mother of Steve and Randy Carrillo – early Changuitos and founding members of Mariachi Cobre
MORE MARIACHI MEMORIES
Robert Martinez, vihuela, Mariachi Cobre; Changuito 1971-74:
‘Those were fun days. I had a blast. Probably the most memorable was having lunch with Mayor Daley – Richard Daley in Chicago. Of course we got pictures and so forth. It wasn’t until I was at the university that I realized who this man was. The boss! We had lunch with the man.’
Adalberto, Tejano superstar and lead singer with the Latin Breed, Changuito 1968-1969:
“That was a very important time in our lives. Look at where (Cobre core members are) at. We weren’t even teenagers yet. There was no question where they were headed. We did a lot of traveling. The first gig that I did with the Changos was President Nixon’s inaugural parade. I remember that I ran into the Jackson Five in the hallway of one of the hotels where we were staying.”
Marlise Figueroa, 16, Tucson High Magnet School junior, current violinist:
“When I was back in Estrellitas I would hear Changos this and Changos that. I was like, ‘Oh, that would be neat to be in the group’ because they all seemed so cool and so professional. When I finally got in, I was really proud. . . . In class, I had to write about our greatest accomplishment. I wrote about Mariachi Los Changuitos Feos because I’m so proud to say I’m in it. We get to travel everywhere and play in front of huge audiences and everyone loves it.”
Mack Ruiz, violin, Mariachi Cobre. Changuito in the mid to late 1960s:
“I was a little boy that was used to being on the west side of the Santa Cruz River. Didn’t stray off very far from that other than maybe going downtown to play pinball at the arcade. Then I got the opportunity to be with the Changos and it took me to places like Chicago and New York.”
Freddy Alvarez, Changuito 1971-72 and 1974-75:
“The best part for me was not so much the music but being in the Changos – the name. Back then there was hardly any other musical group, especially youth groups. The real best part of it was being with friends. Playing music with your friends and getting to know the families. It didn’t matter whose house we went to, we were always welcome.”
Nicholas Aguilar, 16, Tucson High Magnet School, Chango trumpeter:
“It feels wonderful (to be part of the Changos). You hear a lot of older people say ‘I remember when the first generation played for our wedding.’ And now, 40 years later, we’re playing for their anniversary or their sons’ and daughters’ wedding. That’s really nice.”
Mary Ruiz, mother of founding Los Changuitos Feo member Mack Ruiz and Dr. David Ruiz, one of the pioneer Changos:
“After seeing how this mariachi movement has grown nationwide and worldwide, I think it’s great. And to see the thousands of mariachi students all over getting some of the same experiences (early Changos) had that have helped them grow into the men that they are. From the beginning they knew how to handle themselves professionally. I’m proud especially that they were able to get involved in this kind of work that has helped all those students in understanding their culture.”