Teresa Cuevas - Kansas Folk Art
Matthew Jason Cuevas, Apprentice
Eulalia Belen Martinez, Apprentice
Teresa Cuevas and the group Mariachi Estrella are central figures in the expression of the Mexican American culture in Kansas. The Mexican American community has been in existence in the state since the middle of the 19th century when the first wave of immigrants arrived.
Facing uncertainty at home and drawn by the prospect of jobs on the railroad and in agriculture, many chose to leave Mexico in search of a better life in the United States. Since that early beginning the Mexican American community has continued to grow and thrive. Separated from their home roots by geographic distance and the passage of time, the Mexican Americans of Kansas have followed the course of other immigrant groups as they have developed their own distinctive communities and traditions in the new environment.
Teresa was born in Topeka of parents who immigrated from the city of Leon in the state of Guanajuato. There the poverty and violence of the Mexican Revolution had made life intolerable. Her father found work with the Santa Fe railroad and she grew up close to the railroad shop on Kline Street in Topeka. When her children were still small she moved to the country where she took up agriculture and dairy farming with her husband.
Her involvement in music started at an early age. She first studied the violin in school at the age of eight. At that time she concentrated on classical style music and waltzes. Teresa continued to play in the school orchestra all through high school. Raising children and farming took a great deal of time, however, forcing her to retire from music until her children were grown.
Although she had played more classical styles of music, Teresa had always loved mariachi music. She grew up listening to this traditional form of music, which is most often played at church functions, weddings, and social gatherings. Mariachi music ranges from lively tunes to mellow ballads. A mariachi band is traditionally made up of a guitar, trumpets, violins, a guitarr0on, and a viheula. At the time Teresa was growing up in Topeka there was no local mariachi band. This meant that her greatest exposure to this musical form was through records. "I used to wish I could play like that," Teresa remembers.
Teresa took up the violin once again as an adult so that she could play for her church, Our Lady of Guadalupe. Once she became involved she immediately realized that she needed more training. After two seasons with the Topeka String Project she went on to study privately with Ernesto Valencia for two years.
It was here that she also first had the opportunity to participate in the music of her people. Mariachi began again in Topeka when Father Julio, a Catholic priest from Guatamala, came to the parish and reintroduced the musical form into the weekly mass. The women of the church first became involved in a church choir. "He introduced us to a lot of the music that they played," remembers Teresa, "happy music, music you could understand, it was a new experience." Out of the choir grew a mariachi band.
The original Mariachi Estrella included Connie Alcala, Delores Galvan, Teresa Cuevas, Rachel Galvan, and Linda Scurlock. The group began playing for local church functions on the strength of their classical music training, but the members felt the need for a stronger traditional base. To obtain further training the group made arrangements to attend a workshop in Texas.
We wanted to learn the right way, because we weren't even playing the right way. Because there's order to how you play. . . . It is a different style the way the instruments come together. One plays and the other answers it. It's a very different way to play.—Teresa Cuevas
The members of Mariachi Estrella continued to attend workshops throughout the western part of the United States. These workshops helped the group deal with their feelings of isolation in Kansas. Within their home state the group had begun to be thought of as the primary mariachi group. Although the members appreciated these sentiments, they felt the need to further their musical education with others who played in the mariachi tradition. The more the group studied with traditional mariachi musicians, the more enthusiastic its members became.
Mariachi music has so much heart. A lot of the music is about love, some is lively, some is slow. When you become accustomed to it, you learn where it is appropriate to yell "gritos!" The yell releases something that you feel. When you start hearing the "gritos" from the audience, that's an acknowledgement that they do like the music.—Teresa Cuevas
In 1981 tragedy struck Mariachi Estrella when four of its members were killed in an unfortunate accident. Teresa and Rachel, the surviving members, were determined to continue the musical tradition of mariachi in their community. They reached out to younger members of their parish and began the slow process of training new members.
The Mexican American community of Topeka had supported the group from the beginning and was not willing to allow this tragedy to take away its traditional music. The community continued its support of the group by encouraging the younger members of the community to apprentice to Teresa and Rachel.
Today, Mariachi Estrella is once again a respected institution. The group travels through the region representing the Mexican American communities in Kansas and always meeting with high praise. This success is a result of the commitment of the community, Rachel, and in particular Teresa to rebuild the group. The Folk Arts Apprenticeship Program also has played a small part in helping Topeka maintain its mariachi heritage.
During the first year of the apprenticeship program Teresa applied for and was approved to study mariachi violin with Laura Garcia Kirkpatrick of Santa Cruz, California. Teresa had first encountered Laura at a workshop in San Antonio, Texas.
When Teresa began her apprenticeship with Laura it was just a few months after she had retired. Teresa's goal was to go to California and learn as much as she could and bring the information back to the Mexican American community in Topeka. One of her primary goals for her retirement was to rebuild Mariachi Estrella. Teresa spent a good deal of the summer studying with Laura, and she had the opportunity to play with a couple of mariachi bands in California. One of the major differences she found between mariachi music in California and in Kansas was its use during Mass.
In California I was surprised. I went to two Mexican churches and they only had two guitars and people singing. I thought here in Topeka we have trumpets, violins, guitars, everything—it's a big thing.—Teresa Cuevas
Teresa returned from California enthusiastic and a better mariachi performer. "When I got back I remember that the first time we played 'La Nega' the rest of them said 'it came together!'" Teresa says, "One of the members of the group said, "You know, you have really made it now. . . . You are mariachi now, you are the way you play.'" This was a proud moment for Teresa. She had returned from California with renewed confidence. She speaks fondly of her two months with Laura, "It was fantastic what she did, what she did for my self-esteem."
After returning from California, Teresa devoted herself to the group and training younger members of the community to play mariachi. In 1986 she became a master artist under the Folk Arts Apprenticeship Program, taking on Matthew Jason Cuevas as an apprentice. In 1987 Eulalia Belen Martinez apprenticed with Teresa. Both students had studied the classical violin and both had shown an interest in and a talent for mariachi. At the conclusion of their apprenticeships Matthew and Eulalia became members of Mariachi Estrella. Both students now have a commitment to become professional mariachi musicians.
Teresa's experience in California had convinced her that the group as a whole could use even more instruction. In 1987 the group applied for and received funds under the apprenticeship program to work with Jesus Magallanes of San Antonio, Texas. He spent an intensive two weeks working with the group every day to improve its style.
Mariachi Estrella has successfully been rebuilt. Although the apprenticeship program played an important role in its rebirth, the credit must be given to the members. The apprenticeship program was able to shoulder some of the financial burden that was imposed upon the group in terms of master artist fees. However, the members of the group spent a great deal of their own money in terms of travel. Although the apprenticeship program allows for apprenticeships to take place out of the state, the apprentice must pay for the travel cost out of his or her own pocket.
After Teresa returned from her apprenticeship in California, Mariachi Estrella began to play more and more public performances. "People have heard real mariachis," explains Teresa. "People have been to Mexico, and I think as we improved they thought we sounded pretty good." Although the group now plays regionally, it continues to serve the Mexican American community in Topeka. Besides appearances at church, every year the group can be heard at the Fiesta Mexicana in Topeka.
When we played for the Fiesta on stage and one guy said, "I already told the people that were in charge, how come they have to bring a group from Texas, the group from Topeka is better than they are." The people from Texas know more songs. But I thought it was good for him to say that. It felt real good.—Teresa Cuevas
Teresa is grateful for the help the apprenticeship program was able to give the group. It has had a lasting impact upon the Mexican American community in Topeka. Teresa is proud of what the group has accomplished.
My dream has been to accomplish something that sounds good and looks like the real mariachis in Mexico. I never thought that I felt I was going to make a lot of money and I really don't think that has been what the other ones thought. We wanted to do something that we could be proud of, that the people could see that it was something good.—Teresa Cuevas
From Kansas Folk Arts Apprenticeship Program © KSHS 1989
Entry: Cuevas, Teresa - Kansas Folk Art
Author: Kansas Historical Society
Author information: The Kansas Historical Society is a state agency charged with actively safeguarding and sharing the state's history.
Date Created: February 2011
Date Modified: May 2012
The author of this article is solely responsible for its content.