Courtesy / Matt Buikema
When Vanessa Del Fierro started playing mariachi music in high school, she immersed herself in the genre’s traditions. The music, the arrangements, the attire all dated back centuries, but as she became more passionate about it, she was ready to make the genre her own.
Now, the San Antonio-native is the founder and leader of the all-female mariachi group Las Coronelas. Together they have toured the U.S., taken the male-dominated genre by storm and reinvented it — becoming the first female mariachi group to wear pants, changing their arrangements to include their takes on English songs and performing their own corridos
“I wanted to do something different,” Del Fierro said. “A lot of female groups have male directors, but I wanted an all-female project. I wanted to be able to add my own spin on the attire, the music and add my own influence.”
Del Fierro y Las Coronelas will be part of the Pearl’s second annual Mariachi Lab, a celebration which will bring together performers and fans alike through showcases and workshops. The event serves as the finale to the Pearl’s summer-long Olé initiative celebrating San Antonio’s Spanish roots.
Elizabeth Fauerso, Chief Marketing Officer of the Pearl, said Las Coronelas were perfect performers to include because they show how far mariachi has come since it came to San Antonio at the turn of the 20th century.
“These women are challenging the history of this male-dominated genre,” Fauerso said. “There’s such a richness of female artists in this city who are masters of the traditional artform, but also innovators within that space. We wanted to highlight that and emphasize that mariachi is truly a living artform that’s evolving with our contemporary world.”
Performing alongside Del Fierro in the event finale is acclaimed Spanish guitarist Luis Gallo of Madrid. Through his show “Caminos de la Guitarra” or “The Path of the Guitar,” Gallo traces the history and development of the guitar from 15th-century Spain to modern day. The performance is a return to where it all began for Gallo — San Antonio was the site of his first international concert.
Like Del Fierro, Gallo said it’s important for him to break out of the tradition of the flamenco genre in which he was trained. To him, innovation in the genre is a natural step in its survival.
“My aim is to bridge styles,” Gallo said. “There was a time when purists would look down on people who were doing something different, but now everyone can have their own take. I don’t want to be shut in by tradition.”
That bridging of styles comes naturally to Del Fierro, who was raised in an immigrant household in Harlandale. Her parents immigrated from Matamoros, across the border from Brownsville before she was born. Growing up, she remembers going to school and speaking English all day before returning to a home full of Juan Gabriel’s music, Mexican food, and the Spanish language.
“It was wonderful,” Del Fierro said. “It took some adjusting, but I had these two worlds I was a part of. I would go to school and listen to different music and talk about different things, but home… home was Mexico.”
Her upbringing is one of the main themes in Del Fierro’s music, which includes lyrics about immigrant laborers and the American Dream.
“I’m a first-generation American, so I write about that because it’s important to me,” Del Fierro said. “My parents came here and gave me the opportunity to use my voice, so why not use it for good? My music is fun and it’s peaceful, but it also speaks for those who can’t.”
It was Del Fierro’s mother who first encouraged her to join Harlandale High School’s mariachi program. She had always been a singer, but through the program, she learned both the guitar and the violin.
At this weekend’s Mariachi Lab, Del Fierro will be giving back and stepping in as a teacher by hosting a female vocal workshop. In mariachi music, there are multiple styles that vocalists can employ — huapango, bolero, ranchero — and while the vocal styles might change, Del Fierro said the emotion and delivery of the lyrics are key in mariachi music.
Del Fierro wanted to focus on teaching young women because, since forming Las Coronelas, the group has received a number of messages from young girls asking to join the group or saying they’ve been inspired to start learning to play.
“Mariachi is for all genders,” Del Fierro said. “There’s a lot of beautiful music that needs to be interpreted by women. We need female voices and the female heart and soul to add another twist to the genre. I’m happy to be a part of that.”
Their transformation of the genre has mostly been met with positivity, but Del Fierro said they occasionally had to overcome doubts from their male counterparts.
“There were men that kind of had to get used to the idea that women were performing and getting a lot of work,” Del Fierro said. “Some of them used to say ‘You ladies just dance,’ or ‘you’re beautiful, that’s why you get more work.’ But they didn’t take into account that we’re trained vocalists and musicians who put in the work.”
Despite the occasional obstacles, Del Fierro said she has no plans on stopping.
“Mariachi finds you,” Del Fierro said. “It’s a passion that you can’t leave once you start it. I’ve played all types of music but I can’t steer away from this because I have such a love and passion for it. It’s what I know and what I’m happiest doing.”