In December of 2014, the mariachi world lost one of its all-time greatest icons, trumpeter extraordinaire Miguel Martínez, often referred to as the “father of the mariachi trumpet.” One of the primary figures in mariachi music of the 20th century, and by far the most influential instrumentalist in the history of the genre, his incomparable legacy encompassed nearly eight decades.
Miguel Martínez Domínguez was born on September 29, 1921 in the town of Celaya, Guanajuato. He never knew his hometown, however, since his family moved to Mexico City when he was only four years old. His involvement in mariachi music began around 1930, when a wandering mariachi used to stroll by his house and enter a nearby cantina as he remained outside listening. Noticing the boy’s inordinate fascination with the music, the group leader suggested he learn to play a musical instrument so he could join them. “What instrument should I learn?” asked young Miguel. “The trumpet,” the musician replied, explaining that that instrument was starting to become popular among mariachis, and that they didn’t have one in their group. And so began the career of the greatest mariachi trumpet player in history.
His first traje de gala
Miguel Martínez spent his adolescence as a trumpet player in Mexico City’s Plaza Garibaldi of the 1930s, when brass was a novel and controversial addition to what had traditionally been almost an all-string genre. Out of some five mariachi groups that worked in the plaza back then, only two used a trumpet, since at that time most of that music’s customers still frowned on that instrument. Miguel and the handful of other mariachi trumpeters that existed back then were obligated to fight a long, uphill battle for acceptance.
With Mariachi Vargas at radio station XEW in the mid-1940s.
Standing: Arturo Mendoza, Gonzalo Meza, Miguel Martínez, José Asunción Casillas, Roque Alcalá, Gaspar Vargas.
Seated: Rubén Fuentes, Silvestre Vargas, José Contreras, Santiago Torres.
One day in late 1942, Miguel received an invitation that would change not only the course of his career, but mariachi music in general. When bandleader Silvestre Vargas approached him and asked him if he’d like to audition to play on the famous radio station XEW, Miguel reluctantly accepted. As fate would have it, he passed the audition and joined Silvestre’s group, which up until that point had been strictly a string band. Over the next three decades, the evolution of mariachi music accelerated exponentially as Miguel Martínez, Rubén Fuentes, and other legendary members of Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlán and their collaborators introduced numerous innovations and set unprecedented standards of musical excellence for the genre.
The three most important figures of mariachi music in the 20th century: Rubén Fuentes, Silvestre Vargas, and Miguel Martínez.
A decade after joining Mariachi Vargas, in late 1952, Miguel left that group to join the newly formed Mariachi México de Pepe Villa. The most distinguishing feature of this new ensemble was that it included two trumpets, something virtually unheard of for a mariachi of that era. The two-trumpet combination was initially met with widespread rejection, and once again Miguel found himself fighting for his instrument’s acceptance—only this time, in duet.
With Mariachi México in 1953.
In a desperate attempt to make this novel instrumentation work, Miguel and second trumpeter Jesús Córdoba spent long hours innovating and perfecting the two-trumpet performance practice. Whereas acceptance of the solo mariachi trumpet had taken many years to achieve, the mariachi trumpet duo caught on much more quickly. Within a year after its founding, Mariachi México de Pepe Villa became the most popular mariachi in Mexico, and groups everywhere began adding a second trumpet. After a year with Mariachi México, however, Miguel returned to Mariachi Vargas, where he continued as solo trumpeter. In the late 1950s he took another hiatus from Vargas, but he returned to that group by the early 1960s. It wasn’t until that ensemble added a permanent second trumpet player in the mid-1960s that Miguel left Mariachi Vargas for good.
Miguel’s final period with Mariachi Vargas.
Front row: Juan Pinzón, Miguel Martínez, Silvestre Vargas, Federico Torres, Víctor Cárdenas.
Back row: José Contreras, Jesús Rodríguez de Híjar, Mario Santiago, Arturo Mendoza, Nati Santiago, Rigoberto Alfaro.
Shortly after leaving Vargas for the final time, Martínez was appointed musicians’ union representative for Mexico City’s Televicentro television studio complex (later known as Televisa). It soon came to his attention that there simply weren’t enough quality groups to fulfill the demand for mariachis on television, and he formed Mariachi Tolteca de Miguel Martínez to fill that gap. His group, which existed from approximately 1965 to 1970, performed extensively on TV and in person, but never made records. Miguel disbanded Mariachi Tolteca after a dental problem left him unable to play for several months.
Mariachi Tolteca de Miguel Martínez
Televicentro, Mexico City, 1967.
A frustrating lull in don Miguel’s career followed. Although he continued practicing his trumpet diligently until the final years of his life, he was never again able to regain his extraordinary trademark sound. Stints with a seemingly endless succession of modest groups followed, and for the next twenty years he traveled incessantly, often spending extended periods with undistinguished mariachis in many different US cities and even Central- and South America, and the Caribbean.
With Rigoberto Alfaro, Pepe Martínez, and Jesús Rodríguez de Híjar. Albuquerque, 2010.
With Heriberto Molina “El Cura,” Manuel Valle “El Chivo,” and Mario Santiago. Alice, Texas, 2013.
After being out of the limelight for two full decades, a new phase of Miguel Martínez’s career began in the early 1990s. What is often called the “U.S. mariachi movement” was born in San Antonio in 1979, and by the late 1980s, many new mariachi festivals and conferences were being founded every year in different states of the union. The first of these that don Miguel attended was held in Alice, Texas, in early 1992. As his reputation spread, invitations became more and more frequent. One of the most important of these came from Mariachi Spectacular de Albuquerque (New Mexico), where he remained a principal fixture for over two decades, and where, in 1994, he became the first Mariachi Hall of Fame inductee.
Mariachi Spectacular Hall of Fame
In 1999, Virginia Estrada, Miguel’s wife of 53 years, with whom he had six children, passed away following a prolonged illness. A decade later, in 2009, he married María Guadalupe Vallejo, who would be his constant companion during the final years of his life.
His first wife Virginia, their daughter Carmen, and their compadre Rubén Fuentes.
His second wife, Lupita.
Don Miguel was already well known on the U.S. mariachi festival and conference circuit when in 2002 he received his first invitation to attend a Mexican event of this type (Mexico City’s now-defunct Congreso Internacional del Mariachi). It wasn’t until 2011, however, that he attended his first mariachi festival in Guadalajara, thanks to the invitation of Ignacio Bonilla, head of the state of Jalisco’s Institute of Popular Cultures. Ironically, that event was the Encuentro Nacional de Mariachi Tradicional—whose guidelines exclude mariachi groups that use a trumpet—a testimony to the vision and broad-mindedness of that institute’s director. Fortunately, once he was in Guadalajara, maestro Martínez was also invited to participate in that city’s Encuentro Internacional del Mariachi y la Charrería. Bonilla was instrumental in petitioning the Mexican government’s cultural publishing house, CONACULTA, to publish the maestro’s autobiographical Mi Vida, Mis Viajes, Mis Vivencias: Siete Décadas en la Música del Mariachi, in 2012. Now in its second printing, that book brought don Miguel even greater recognition.
Receiving the Galardón Mariachi award from Ignacio Bonilla. Guadalajara, 2011.
With Rigoberto Alfaro at the initial presentation of the autobiography. Guadalajara, 2012.
After his book came out, Miguel Martínez launched his own Facebook page. Within a few months, he had thousands of Facebook friends. It seemed that everyone in the mariachi world desired his friendship. At every festival he attended, large numbers of people asked to take photographs with him, and bought his book and records. As he entered his nineties, he was more popular than he had ever been in his life. He had become a true mariachi superstar.
Tijuana, Baja California
San Antonio, Texas
By 2013, don Miguel’s health had begun to deteriorate rapidly. First, he developed eye problems that required several operations. By the time he attended the twin Encuentros in Guadalajara for the last time, however, his eyes were the least of his problems. In the late summer of 2014, he was diagnosed with spondyloarthosis, a degeneration of the cervical discs of the spine that caused him to lose control of his hands and become unsteady on his feet. Due to this condition, he was unable to sign copies of his book for fans during the final months of his life, and he had to resort to using a rubber stamp bearing his signature for this purpose. Fortunately, his mental faculties remained sound until the very end.
Accepting a lifetime achievement award from the Mariachi Vargas Extravaganza, with Cynthia Muñoz, Jonathan Clark, and Fernando Velásquez. San Antonio, 2013.
With the Mariachi Vargas trumpet section: Fernando Velásquez, Gustavo Alvarado, and Federico Torres. San Antonio, 2013.
In his desire to enjoy life to its fullest, in spite of failing health, don Miguel continued to accept invitations for as long as he was able to. On October 17, 2014 he was the guest of honor at a tribute held in Plaza Garibaldi’s Ollin Yoliztli mariachi school, where a trumpet bearing his name was introduced. Later that month, he made a trip to Nochistlán, Zacatecas, where Mariachi Internacional Los Pérez paid tribute to him. The following month, he traveled to León, Guanajuato, where homage was paid to him on St. Cecilia’s Day (Day of the Musician). After only one day of rest, he set out again—this time to New York City, where he accepted a well-deserved award the Mariachi Conservatory of that city bestowed on him.
In New York with Álvaro Paulino Jr., one week before the maestro’s demise.
At the end of November, don Miguel returned from New York exhausted. He spent the following week at his Mexico City home, resting and recovering from the previous month’s grueling travel. According to his wife, Lupita, he seemed to sense that his days were numbered, becoming highly introspective and praying incessantly.
With Jorge Negrete in the 1953 film Reportaje.
Friday, December 5th, was the anniversary of the death of Jorge Negrete, an artist don Miguel accompanied extensively and with whom he had a close friendship. He often stated that Jorge was his most favorite ranchera singer. That evening, after watching two Negrete movies on television in which he appeared with the singer, the father of the mariachi trumpet succumbed to a sudden, massive heart attack, at age 93.
Receiving the tragic news shortly afterward, I posted it on Facebook and went to bed heartbroken. When I awoke the following morning, I found hundreds of condolence postings, most of which included photos taken with don Miguel.
Felipe Luna’s Mariachi Nuevo Sol de México plays in the chapel.
I caught the red-eye flight to Mexico City and arrived Sunday morning at daybreak. The Jardines del Recuerdo mortuary chapel was full of Miguel’s family and friends, some of whom had been there since Friday night and were wrapped in blankets, sleeping on the pews. More and more mariachis arrived as the morning progressed, and at noon, the casket was taken to the crematorium. There, an improvised group played during the incineration, concluding with “La Negra,” as per the maestro’s last wishes. The urn containing the ashes was handed to doña Lupita, who placed it in the niche that would be the final resting place of the great musician’s earthly remains.
Friends and family bid farewell to don Miguel.
Final resting place of the maestro’s ashes.
Many years from now, Miguel Martínez will undoubtedly still be considered the greatest mariachi trumpet player of all time, and one of the most important figures in the evolution of mariachi music. As a performer, innovator, and composer-songwriter, his contribution to the genre is second to none. Furthermore, he was an amiable, genteel, charismatic individual who loved to share his knowledge and experiences, and who had an uncanny knack for telling captivating anecdotes.
(Montage by Gustavo Reyes)
Those of us who had the immense privilege and honor of knowing don Miguel Martínez—the father of the mariachi trumpet—will never forget him. May God grant his soul eternal peace.