I grew up listening to music in Spanish, mostly anything with a mariachi, banda, or conjunto norteño, never even hearing those “oldies” organic to Los Angeles. I’ve had a musical exploration reverse to many people my age or of previous generations. Many I know grew up listening to music in English and started to explore music from México or Latin America later in life (if they ever did), while I started to explore music in English when I was about fourteen. Even now, I mostly listen to and explore different music from México, but that’s due to me playing in mariachis for the past eight years.
Imagine my surprise yesterday when a post over at Guanabee came up on my RSS feed. I scour the internet for news relating to mariachi, especially this week, when the San José Mariachi and Latin Music Festival is on. [During mariachi festival time, new & interesting things come to light, like Rubén Fuentes, longtime former member and director of Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlán (64 years and counting), and songwriter extraordinaire, gave an interview (he is very reclusive) and stated that the future of mariachi music was in the United States.] One of the festival’s concerts, last night’s, was headlined by Ersi Arvizu, a name I did not recognize. As I read on, however, it became clear I already knew who she was.
Some of her biography seems exceptional, yet refreshingly relatable:
Arvizu grew up in East L.A., on the other side of the bridge, in a neighborhood known by its ruling street gang’s name, Maravilla. At an early age, her mother, who struggled to keep her six children safe — which meant close-by – taught her and her brothers and sisters how to play guitar and blend their voices singing. “Mostly ranchera and mariachi style,” Arvizu remembers. “We would go to parties to sing and I could remember that my feet didn’t even hit the ground. But I was always wanting to rush through the song so I can go out to play – dodge ball, kick the can, football with the guys.” Eventually they were singing before fights at the Olympic Auditorium, the stage, at show’s conclusion, littered with money — bills and coins. By high school, three of the sisters – Ersi and her siblings Rosella and Mary – would eventually become known beyond the borders of East L.A. “The Sisters” singing at dances at the El Monte Legion Stadium or the Paramount Ballroom or afternoon parties around East L.A.
Her father trained boxers in their backyard and she would at times watch them practice. She even boxed a few times after her musical career ended in the 70s. For those who care, she had four knockouts.
After performing in a string of ensembles post-The Sisters – a series of garage bands and then a spot singing with a band called the Village Callers, Arvizu was lured away to a group called, the V.I.P.s who would soon come to be known as El Chicano. Ersi sang on the band’s second, non-instrumental album, “Revolucion” – which featured “Sabor a Mí” and “I’m a Good Woman,” both of which, in their own ways, evolved into Eastside anthems. But soon after, she parted ways with the band. “Too much drinking, too much drugs, too much, too much . . .” all around her. “I couldn’t take all of that.”
After reading this, I knew exactly who she was. Thousands of people, both young and old, had danced, kissed, fallen in love and enjoyed life to the smoothness of her voice in the past thirty years, yet her name had remained a complete unknown to me. After ending her musical career, she moved to Arizona and worked there for years, until a few years ago, Ry Cooder found her to sing in his album Chávez Ravine and later collaborated with her to record her recent album, Friend for Life.
Though I still prefer the Mariachi America version of “Sabor a mí” (because Arturo Vargas [lead singer in the video] is god), El Chicano’s sound and her voice are perfectly complementary and provide a soundtrack for far too many memories of Los Angeles.
Image taken from Ersi Arvizu’s MySpace page.