A Local Life: Luis Gonzalez, 77, D.C.’s maestro of mariachi

May 21, 2011

As a 9-year-old hanging out on the streets of Mexico City, Luis Gonzalez taught himself to play the vihuela, a Mexican five-string guitar. He gradually moved into restaurants and cabarets in Guadalajara, specializing in bright and bouncy mariachi music.

By the early 1960s, he was working in Washington after following his older sister Angelina, who worked as a caregiver for the Mexican ambassador.

Over the next three decades, he worked his way up the mariachi ladder: from playing Monday nights at an all-you-can-eat Mexican buffet at the Ramada Inn in Alexandria to performing at a White House state dinner for Mexico’s president.

Mr. Gonzalez, 77, who died Feb. 9 in Silver Spring of complications after a stroke, was a stalwart of the region’s small mariachi scene while working as a caretaker for Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Northwest Washington.

“As a musician, Luis was much more than an accomplished technician in his trade,” said Daniel Sheehy, director of the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage and a former bandmate.

“He embodied the heart and soul of the Mexican culture, of which mariachi music is an expression,” Sheehy said. “I have never met anyone more ‘Mexican’ than Luis Gonzalez — in his demeanor, his particular accent in Spanish, his extroverted love of life as expressed through his music. As soon as he walked in a room and began to play, everyone could tell he was from Mexico.”

He performed with the Mexican Embassy’s mariachi group before co-founding the ensemble Mariachi Los Amigos in 1978.

The Mexican buffet night in Alexandria was among the group’s first steady gigs. On nights and weekends for the next 30 years, Mr. Gonzalez and the other members, dressed in silver-studded charro outfits — traditional Mexican horseman attire with wide-brimmed sombreros — played quinceaneras (coming-out balls for 15-year-old Latinas), birthday parties and weddings.

“Cultural gatherings and social rites such as quinceaneras and weddings are not considered complete unless they have a mariachi group,” said Jonathan Clark, a musician and coordinator of a mariachi ensemble class at Stanford University in California. “Mariachi fulfills a cultural role and reminds people who have emigrated here from Mexico of their roots.”

Luis Soto Gonzalez was born Jan. 28, 1934, in Michoacan, a state in western Mexico, and was the youngest of six children. He was three months old when his father, a pharmacist, died. His mother worked as an in-home caregiver, but the family struggled financially.

In the early 1960s, Mr. Gonzalez moved to Washington on a student visa to study English. He became a U.S. citizen in the early 2000s. He lived in Mount Rainier from 1969 until he moved to Silver Spring in 2007.

His marriage to the former Francisca Sandoval Lara ended in divorce. Survivors include four children, Aurora Gonzalez and Patricia Gonzalez, both of Silver Spring, Vanessa Gonzalez of Hyattsville and Rafael Gonzalez of Kissimmee, Fla.; two sisters; and five grandsons.

As the Washington Latino community expanded in the 1980s, Mariachi Los Amigos grew in popularity. They performed at more than 200 functions a year.

They also had fans among the city’s political firmament. They were hired to play at inaugural parties after Ronald Reagan’s presidential victories in 1980 and 1984, and Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) hired them for several social functions, Sheehy said

In 1995, President Bill Clinton invited Mariachi Los Amigos to perform at a state dinner for Mexico’s president, Ernesto Zedillo.

Sheehy said that, as a seasoned performer, Mr. Gonzalez rarely made mistakes. But after the group performed during the cocktail portion of the state dinner, Clinton, Zedillo and their wives appeared unannounced in the Blue Room.

According to Sheehy, Clinton said, “ ‘Now, guys, play something,’ which caught Luis so off-guard, he fumbled and dropped his pick.” Despite the awkward moment, Sheehy said, Mr. Gonzalez retrieved the pick and played “La Negra,” a signature mariachi song.

After he retired from the group in 2007, Mr. Gonzalez told daughter Patricia, “I have lived my life the way I wanted, playing my music. I have no regrets. How many people make a living doing something they love?”