A costumed singer warbles his love for a girl named Micaela, who stole his heart. The strain of violins and brassy trumpets linger in the hot, gardenia-scented air.
It’s the archetypical mariachi-band scene, one that might be found anywhere in Mexico. But in this particular band, Mariachi Agave Azul, only about half of the players are Mexican or Mexican-American—an unusual statistic in the mariachi scene. And the band is far from the U.S. border—they live in Alaska, which has unexpectedly become one of the most diverse states in America and the setting for a demographic transition: the growth of the Hispanic population in America.
Mariachi Agave Azul was created by two church friends three years ago. Both Mexican-American, they wanted to play mariachi music to fill a cultural void and express their own identities. The band’s name mixes Mexico and Alaska together: Agave is the famous Mexican nectar from which tequila is distilled, and azul—Spanish for “blue”—is a tribute to Alaska’s blue skies and ocean.
“At first, I just wanted to set up a band to practice and see how [we’d] do, and I never expected it to come this far,” said guitarron player German Badillo, 23. “Before, it was just like, ‘Hey, want to jam out?’ And from then on we just started liking it.”
The thirteen musicians make up the first and—as far as they know—only mariachi group in Alaska. Judging by the number of gigs they score and the size of the crowds the band draws, the band’s reputation is growing. The group’s target audience is getting bigger, too: Alaska’s Latino and Hispanic populations jumped by more than 51 percent between 2000 and 2010, according to Census data. Twenty percent of Alaskan Hispanics are Mexican. For years, Alaska has been thought of as little more than a snowy, racially homogenous outpost, but the state is transforming into a surprisingly cosmopolitan and diverse place.
“My intention was always to bring back Mexican culture to our Mexican youth, because I felt that our Mexican-Americans are forgetting how to speak Spanish or are ashamed of it,” said Badillo, who grew up listening to mariachi music with his brother, another member of the group. “I’m proud of where I’m from, born and raised here in Anchorage. I’m really proud of calling myself an Alaskan. But I’m also very proud to be Mexican.”
Violinist Mariana Herrera-Arteaga, Badillo’s co-founder, moved to Alaska two decades ago but still visits Mexico frequently. Like Badillo, she sees the band’s music as a way to carve out an identity for Mexicans and Mexican-Americans in Alaska.
“The way that my mom raised me was always, ‘Show them the good side, the beautiful side of Mexico,’” recalled Herrera-Arteaga. “A lot of people here, even Mexicans, Latinos, white people … they’re always like, ‘Mexico’s a dangerous place, a dangerous country,’ and they don’t know how culturally rich it is.”
Herrera-Arteaga’s family’s move, like many others, was prompted by economic necessity. Twenty years ago, Mexico was deep in a financial crisis, prompting Herrera-Arteaga’s father to find work as a cook in Anchorage. The family ended up staying, lured by the ease of finding work and Alaska’s great natural beauty.