Three of the most emblematic symbols associated with Mexico – for better or worse – are tequila, mariachis and charros (Mexican cowboys). The Museum of Tequila, Mescal and Mariachis (the MUTEM, as it is known colloquially) showcases all three!
This month, the UNESCO recognized Mariachis as Intangible Cultural Heritage (meeting the committee’s stringent criteria, since it is “transmitted generation to generation and continuously recreated during festive, religious and social events; it strengthens the sense of identity and continuity of its communities, within Mexico and abroad”). With this honor comes a commitment from Mexico to promoting this genre of music and foster related research. More than anything, I applaud this declaration because it raises what is seen as a folkloric expression to a more serious level, assuring that Mariachi music remains vital and will, hopefully, be taken more seriously.
Mariachi music, for those unfamiliar with this traditional Mexican music, is played by a group that varies in size and style. It takes songs from different regions of Mexico – including jarabes, polkas, waltzes, the traditional serenata and corridos, many of which were not written for the express purpose of being played in a “mariachi” format – and turns them into a sound that is unmistakably Mariachi! The vast majority of lyrics are associated with romantic courtships or rural life, and became recognizable worldwide during Mexico’s Golden Age of Motion Pictures, with actors such as Pedro Infante, Jorge Negrete and Luis Aguilar to name a few, who often broke into song intermittently in their films.
Mariachi bands are made up of guitar, violin, trumpet, vihuela (an acoustic guitar with a rounded back) and guitarron (an acoustic bass guitar on steriods) players. The groups usually range between 6 and12 members, decked out in gala charro outfits with tight-fitting pants (or skirts, in the case of women Mariachis) studded with silver-plated buttons commonly linked with chains running along the side seams, a short jacket, long bow tie and the typical broad-brimmed Mexican sombrero, embellished with portmanteau embroidery and optional sequence.
Mariachi bands can be heard and hired in Garibaldi Square. Yes, believe it or not serenades are still popular in Mexico, particularly for quinceaños’ festivities, to charm disgruntled novias, at weddings and for birthdays and saint’s days, though given the current economic climate, they are not as ubiquitous as year’s begone since they have become less and less affordable. The musical groups congregate in Garibaldi, which is lined with numerous bars, situated just off the city’s central artery (Eje Central) downtown. That is, appropriately, where the Museum of Tequila, Mescal and Mariachis is located.
In the city’s attempt to clean up the “Plaza de Garibaldi,” the zone has been given a recent face lift, including the creation of the MUTEM (last year). Mariachi music has morphed over the years, but it’s roots can be traced back to the state of Jalisco in the 18th century. The MUTEM is the only place in Mexico City to learn about the history of this music, or about tequila or mescal, which are all intertwined. (There are other tequila museums in Mexico (country) – one in the heartland of Jalisco – in Tequila (city) and another in Guadalajara (also in the state of Jalisco.)
In order to retain the international honor that the UNESCO has bestowed it this month, Mexico is required to “protect” this living manifestation of its cultural tradition, so hopefully this small, yet comprehensive, museum will take on greater importance, and continue to expand its displays, which showcase the production of tequila, mescal and mariachis!
By the way, the MUTEM offers one of the safest watering holes on the Plaza, since the third floor is the museum’s roof-top bar. The entrance ticket to the museum includes one shot of tequila or mescal of your choice from a broad collection which lines the walls! (Mexican antojitos or snacks are also available at a reasonable price.) As an added bonus, you can listen to mariachi music to your heart’s content – for free! The best groups on the plaza alternate sets in this open-air space. If you chose to continue your spree, you can sample the agave-based liquors, selecting from a long list of top-notch tequilas or mescals carefully selected from around the country. And, given that the museum and the restaurant-bar is run by the city government, there is no fear of being overcharged or taken advantage of (as is often the case at the surrounding local bars) as your mind gets fuzzy from the libations!
Thus, not only can you learn about the Mexican D.O. liquors – both tequila and mescal have been granted the seal of Denominación de Origen (D.O.) under the international appellation system, assuring that these beverages have been produced in a specific region and comply with stringent quality criteria – and Mexican music, but also sample the music and drink to your heart’s content in a safe environment, at a reasonable price.
Be sure to check out the ground-floor museum store, which is brimming with a hand-picked selection of handicrafts unavailable elsewhere. The MUTEM staff travels around Mexico, combing the countryside for unique keepsakes, which it offers at affordable prices at its gift shop. Plus, the spruced up Plaza now has underground parking, where you can park your vehicle yourself, rather than leaving it with often unreliable valet parking services or having to walk several blocks late at night (very convenient, particularly when your steps are wobbly!).
Happy New Year with a Mexican touch! Be sure to check out the MUTEM in 2012!