Across the street from Mariachi Plaza, a barista prepares an iced coffee. Her customer, a petite blonde, blue-eyed woman, requests a mariachi musician discount. The barista looks at her with disbelief before asking her to fill out a form certifying that she’s a mariachi. That skeptical reaction is not unusual for Sally Hawkridge, who isn’t a typical mariachi.
On most weekends, Hawkridge, 53, and her boyfriend and fellow mariachi, Aurelio Reyes, can be found in Mariachi Plaza looking for work. Dressed in her trademark white or blue mariachi suits and often the only woman and non-native Spanish speaker among the Latino men wearing traditional black mariachi outfits, she stands out.
Despite her ethnic background, the musician, who makes a living as a substitute teacher, has earned the other mariachis’ respect.
“She is really prepared and very friendly. She loves music,” says Teodoro Cuevas from Estrella Del Sur, a local group from Mariachi Plaza. “I am happy because Americans want to be with us Mexicans,” says Santos Monge, 52, a mariachi who also works out of Mariachi Plaza.
Hawkridge is also popular with customers. She says that one of her selling points is that non-Spanish speakers looking to hire musicians find her more approachable.
A mostly male world
Mariachi music is Mexican folk music, passed down through generations as an oral tradition. Mariachi groups typically consist of Mexican men, but Hawkridge, a white woman from Pennsylvania, plays with her boyfriend in a mariachi group called “Mariachi Palenque”, de Arelio Reyes, el Gallo de Chiapas. After falling in love with the music, she has dedicated the last eight years to learning both the language and the songs.
Hawkridge was exposed to the music through the films of Pedro Infante, a famous Mexican singer and actor. Hawkridge wanted to understand his songs the way they were meant to be understood.
Already armed with a master’s degree in ethnomusicology from the University of Maryland, she returned to school to study Spanish. On a trip to Guadalajara, she bought a vihuela, a guitar-like five-string instrument that was popular in 19th Century Mexico. She learned to play the vihuela and also to sing classic Mexican songs.
The true test was being able to perform in public. After moving to Los Angeles, Hawkridge began coming to Mariachi Plaza to get work. “I always wanted to come to the plaza,” she said. “When I drove by, I would feel a weird feeling like what you want most in life, but you’re too scared to do it.”
Hawkridge began playing with Los Grandes de Los Angeles, but remained afraid of playing requests. A breakthrough came when she stopped looking at sheet music and started listening to the music.
She met Reyes, a guitar player, who was amazed that someone with such a different background shared the same passion.
“A blonde who hardly speaks Spanish singing our music — that really draws a lot of attention,” said Reyes. The two started dating and now perform together. They each earn about $40 an hour on weekdays and $50 an hour on weekends.
At Mariachi Plaza, everyone recognizes Reyes and Hawkridge as “la pareja perfecta” (the perfect couple). Their white or royal blue suits are adorned with a rooster and a hawk — el gallo and la gavillancita. Reyes remarks that Hawkridge sings and plays well, but “sometimes she’s missing a bit of Mexican flavor.” But he says she loves to learn and is always trying to improve.
“Sally is a noble person, simple, despite that she has lived a bit better than the people who’ve migrated here,” said Reyes.
Besides being a mariachi, Hawkridge works as a substitute high school math teacher in Montebello. She’s also a student at Cal State Los Angeles, where she is studying to become a Spanish interpreter.
Hawkridge says she’s easily discouraged, but “mariachi was a thing that I was just really attracted to for whatever reason. So no matter what, I continued to pursue it.”