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Siblings continue family tradition with third-generation mariachi group

SHARE Siblings continue family tradition with third-generation mariachi group
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Karlysue Castillo Pereyra and her brother, Sam Castillo, are pictured at Pereyra’s home in Springville on Tuesday, Sept. 24, 2019. The two, who have played at weddings, festivals and corporate events since they were children, formed their own group in 2016.

Steve Griffin, Deseret News

SPRINGVILLE — Despite growing up in a small U.S. town, brother and sister Sam Castillo and Karlysue Castillo Pereyra have never felt too far removed from their Mexican heritage.

With the help of their father’s teachings, the Castillo siblings had mariachi music to hold onto as its sounds filled their home in Norfolk, Nebraska.

From an early age, their father, Jesus Castillo, originally from the western Mexican state of Jalisco, where mariachi music is said to have originated, instilled in his children to continue the tradition.

Now, by choice, the Castillo siblings are strong-willed to continue their family tradition, even after moving to Provo to attend Brigham Young University.

Keeping it in the family

Before it was called Tyson Fresh Meats, American meat-packing company IPB attracted their father to Nebraska where he worked as a factory worker.

“My dad was one of the first immigrants to go to my hometown,” Castillo said.

Soon after Jesus Castillo moved to Norfolk, his siblings followed, and he eventually started a family with his wife.

Castillo said his father was the only one of his siblings to learn how to play mariachi music, because his grandmother opposed the mariachi lifestyle that kept her husband away from home due to late-night gigs.

Years later, Castillo and Castillo Pereyra’s father and grandfather wanted to ensure the youngest generation did not lose part of their Mexican culture. It wasn’t long after they started attending school that the siblings picked up the violin. And by the time they reached their teens, Castillo and Castillo Pereyra were already playing gigs professionally across Nebraska.

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Karlysue Castillo Pereyra, a third-generation mariachi, is pictured at her home in Springville on Tuesday, Sept. 24, 2019. She and her brother, Sam Castillo, have played at weddings, festivals and corporate events since they were children. They formed their own group in 2016.

Steve Griffin, Deseret News

They formed the group, Karlysue y Trio Los Charros, in 2016, and Castillo Pereyra said they just wrapped up the summer season, which is their busiest time of year. During the summer, the group is hired to play at numerous weddings, festivals, quinceañeras, corporate parties and events at BYU.

In the quartet, Castillo Pereyra sings and plays the violin, her brother plays the violin and occasionally the trumpet, Arturo Feuntes plays the vihuela, a small guitar-like mariachi instrument, and Castillo Pereyra’s husband, Sam Pereyra, plays the guitarron, a bass-like mariachi instrument.

The band formed after Castillo Pereyra moved to Provo to study Spanish education at BYU and met her future husband, who performed with another mariachi group.

Formerly seen as a genre fueled by machismo that fathers traditionally passed down to their sons, Castillo Pereyra said it was far from her experience.

“I was empowered since day one. Being a woman, sometimes I don’t even think about the fact that it’s out of the ordinary that a woman is leading a group,” she said, adding that she’s heard of staunch traditionalists who don’t believe women belong in the genre.

Nowadays, it’s common to see all-female mariachi groups or all-male mariachi groups, but she said it’s rarer to see mixed-gender groups like hers.

Castillo Pereyra said it’s not uncommon for non-Latino audiences to hire their group for a gig. She noted the popularity of the Disney movie “Coco” has prompted the band to learn songs from the film, which she appreciates.

Evolution of mariachi music

Daniel Sheehy, former director and curator of Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, the nonprofit record label of the Smithsonian Institution, said mariachi music is as much of an art as it is a tradition.

Sheehy said the music’s origin is obscure and early uses of the word ‘mariachi’ in a musical sense date back to the 1800s. By the 1950s, mariachi music emerged in the U.S. due to its popularity in cinema.

He said the tradition was once popular among Mexican cowboys and farmers, and later evolved to become mainstream.

Sheehy, who authored “Mariachi Music in America: Experiencing Music, Expressing Culture” in 2006, said the genre is experiencing a rebirth among younger people, as popular music programs at elementary schools in the southwestern U.S. are influencing a new generation.

“One of the things that makes this so popular is the deep relevance of the music to the student population and their families,” he said.

In his book, he describes mariachi music as “one of the most extroverted, expressive, exciting forms of Latin American music,” and “well known as a symbol of Mexican culture.”

“Mariachi music is here to stay,” he said, adding that it’s still very much a part of people’s lives.

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Sam Castillo, a third-generation mariachi, is pictured at the home of his sister, Karlysue Castillo Pereyra, in Springville on Tuesday, Sept. 24, 2019. The two, who have played at weddings, festivals and corporate events since they were children, formed their own group in 2016.

Steve Griffin, Deseret News

Eulogio Alejandre, principal of Esperanza Elementary School in West Valley City, defines mariachi music as “the common people’s music.”

Alejandre’s school features the largest mariachi music program in Utah. While the size of a small mariachi group averages from five to seven musicians, the elementary features up to 50 players in the school’s mariachi band.

Sheehy said he’s heard story after story on how mariachi programs have strengthened family life at home.

Alejandre agrees that mariachi music has been experiencing a rebirth over the last decade, particularly in the Southwest — New Mexico, Texas, Arizona, Nevada and California.

“When I came here 42 years ago from Mexico, there was nothing,” Alejandre said. “There was nothing in Utah that would remind us of the culture of Mexico.”

He said people unfamiliar with the genre should know it’s no different than country music as the genre centers around storytelling.

As mariachi has become more popular, Alejandre noted, it’s becoming increasingly inclusive by including women’s perspectives.

“All kinds of people are gravitating to mariachi music, because it really is a cultural phenomena from Mexico, and it reminds people in the U.S. of their roots,” he said.

Embracing mariachi

Sam Castillo said he wishes people understood how diverse mariachi can be and it’s not all about “happy songs,” but a genre that evokes vulnerability, grief and longing.

“Mariachi songs can be love songs, they can be sad songs, they can be happy or drunken songs,” he said.

Even though Castillo is studying neuroscience and psychology at BYU and Castillo Pereyra recently graduated and is occupied with raising a family, they both expressed how they’ll never stop playing their music.

“Everyone wants to have that job that they love going to and for us, that’s what mariachi is,” she said. “It feels really good that we’re doing something with our culture.”