Mariachi in His Veins

By Steven Libowitz   |   January 17, 2023
Mariachi Garibaldi is set to kick off the ¡Viva el Arte! season

Born and raised in Bakersfield, Jimmy Cuéllar has never lived a day of his life in Mexico, but it’s safe to say that mariachi music is in his blood. Both of his parents migrated to the United States with their parents when they were kids, his father brought here in his pre-teens to work the fields in the San Joaquin Valley agricultural community. 

Jaime Cuéllar also brought his love for mariachi music with him and formed his own band with his brother when Jimmy was still a kid. 

“It was a family band that played just for fun, more of a backyard kind of scene where people wanted music for their parties,” Jimmy recalled. “There’s no set list – they’re the band where you walk up and ask for a song and they’ll play it because they know every song in the genre.” 

Jimmy, who’d been studying classical violin from age five, wanted in on the fun, and told his pop he too wanted to play mariachi when he was 12. So he joined up with his family band, but within less than a year, Jaime had the idea that playing with kids his age might be better. 

“I was learning a lot, but my father saw that there were no people my age for me to hang out with or talk to about mariachi, and no way to learn how to do show music,” he said. “So in the summer of ‘94, he decided to start a youth mariachi group, and asked all his friends if they had grandkids, sons, daughters, nephews, nieces, or whoever wanted to come, even if they didn’t know how to play. He said, ‘We’ll figure it out’ because the whole point was to get it going in the community.”

Twenty kids showed up to the first rehearsal and Cuéllar recalled they learned one song that first day. Eventually that turned into a core group – named Mariachi Garibaldi after the famous plaza in Mexico City where mariachi musicians gather day and night – who could play a one-hour set of performance music, and were even skilled enough to become the on-call band that backed up mariachi artists visiting Bakersfield. 

Fast-forward a decade and Cuéllar had become ambitious and proficient enough on the mariachi instruments violin, guitarron, vihuela, guitar, and guitarra de golpe to earn a coveted invite – membership in Mariachi los Camperos de Nati Cano

“I’d dreamed about being in that group since I was a kid, and while it was hard to leave, that was a step I could not pass up because you have to keep pushing yourself forward,” he said of his time in the group that brought him a handful of Grammy Awards. “Nati is the one who pushed mariachi to the forefront in the U.S. and his insight was just amazing. That’s where I really learned about doing mariachi as a concert, where you can go sit down and get entertained from beginning to end.”

A decade later, that’s the format Cuéllar brought back to Bakersfield and Mariachi Garibaldi, which had largely laid dormant but roared back to life when Jimmy re-joined, now fully in charge of the group. He moved the group to Los Angeles, where it flourished, and the ensemble Mariachi Garibaldi now regularly shares the stage and records with some of Mexico’s most beloved performers. They’ve also appeared twice as part of ¡Viva el Arte de Santa Bárbara!, the free community arts program that celebrates the music and dance of Latin America with a series of three performances, educational programs, and meet-and-greets across the county every month. 

This weekend, January 13-15, Mariachi Garibaldi kicks off ¡Viva el Arte!’s return to the stage after three years due to the pandemic, and Cuéllar said he can’t wait to get back to town to educate kids and entertain everyone again. 

“It’s just so great because everyone is into it from the moment you start playing, letting loose with a grito (the famous near-yodel shout) whenever they feel it,” he said. “I grew up playing classical music, and I still love it. But mariachi is in my blood.” 

The rest of the ¡Viva el Arte! season includes Grandeza Mexicana (March 17-19), Tres Souls (April 14-16), and Las Cafeteras (May 19-21). For more information, venues and event times, visit

Launch Pad’s Amplify Activates the Audience

UCSB Launch Pad’s BIPOC Reading Series Festival has a new name for 2023, its first season to be held live in person as the pandemic put the kibosh on the first two years after the burgeoning Black Lives Matter movement sparked its formation. Now called Amplify, the festival’s new name not only clarifies its focus on equity, diversity, and inclusion in spotlighting writers of color, it also reflects the ambitious undertaking as the festival features four new plays – each receiving 20-hour workshops culminating in a single free reading presented to the public on January 13-14.

Produced in collaboration with affiliated artists and member theaters of the National New Play Network (NNPN) and UCSB’s own AMPLIFY Initiative, the 2023 fest will encompass Wife of Headless Man Investigates Her Own Disappearance by Yussef El Guindi; Freedom Hill by Jacqueline E. Lawton; Dalia is Dead and her Dad Keeps Making Dumplings by Stephanie Kyung Sun Walters; and Replaced by Eric Reyes Loo

Themes include a journalist wondering whether strange things happening to her are a payback for her take-down articles about an individual and his company to metatheatrical homage to Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, set in a small Southern town during the Reconstruction Era, a 13-year-old girl trying to fight off her sorrow about her mother’s death as well as her frenemies, and an irreverent comedy about a mixed-race novelist who comes to L.A. with big dreams of having her debut novel adapted into a TV show but ends up having to deal with someone making her story without her because they didn’t like her attitude.

The festival brings together professional playwrights, directors, dramaturgs, and guest actors with a number of student actors and other theater majors who shadow each of the professionals over the weeklong process. Each reading will be followed by talk-back conversations with the cast, crew, playwright, and director to both let the audiences learn more about the works, and allow the plays’ creative team to discover how their pieces connect in a live setting. 

“I always love the mix of professionals and students – it’s a real core of what makes Launch Pad such an exciting learning opportunity, both for the student and for the professional,” said Risa Brainin, Launch Pad’s founder and artistic director who will also be helming Wife of Headless Man. “It’s exciting for the audience because you are there at the very beginning, as the play is being birthed. No matter how much we think we know what we’ve got, the thing doesn’t come alive until it’s in front of an audience. People are actually playing a really important part because your reaction, whether it is laughing, crying, silence, or whatever is going to help the playwright know where the play needs to go next. You make an impact.”

Launch Pad Amplify festival performances will also be livestreamed to Facebook. For details, timing, and free tickets to the live events, visit


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