When a member of a royal family passes, everyone who knew them has a story of how they interacted with the scion they knew, albeit briefly.
The lovely and gifted lady known as ‘The Queen of The Mariachi’ recently left this mortal coil and this writer, like all of the others left behind, has a tale to tell.
When a talented child comes up with an idea that you feel is golden (like the child himself) you have no choice but to pursue it. Our Matthew was a world class musician who traveled the globe, when he wasn’t recording with the likes of musical giants like David Byrne, Anthony Braxton and Tom Waits, in search of under-appreciated examples of virtuoso-level world music. When he ‘discovered’ mariachi on a trip to Jalisco, MX back in 2003, he became a missionary for the genre. He finally convinced his father that writing a book introducing its nuanced charms to non-Spanish speakers would be a worthy pursuit. After all his Dad was a musician who could transcribe music, had an M.A, in History from Stanford, and resided at least part of the time in Mexico. Imagine, he cajoled his pater familias, if you could translate the Spanish lyrics into English for all of those ‘gringos’ out there? For those of you in the dark, please know that a gringo is simply a person whose first language is not Spanish. Three weeks after convincing his father of the validity of the idea, the son was tragically taken from his family and the world when a truck ran a red light and collided with him, as he rode his bicycle to his day job at Leapfrog in Berkeley, CA
After a prolonged period of mourning, the father decided it was imperative for him to keep his promise. He knew he would need help and so he researched who could best supply the assistance he so desperately needed. He came upon a wonderful archived article written in 1995 by Michael Quintanilla for The Los Angeles Times titled ‘The Queen of The Mariachi.’ And so began Matthew’s father’s conversation with royalty.
She was also called ‘La Grandota’ (she stood a statuesque 6’1″) and to say that she was beautiful was a gross understatement. Quintanilla described her as” a dead wringer for Linda Carter of Wonder Woman fame’ and he was spot on. The initial contact, made via e-mail was inauspicious; the prospective author’s idea of a pocket sized paper back containing not only an accurate history of the music as well as fifty musical transcriptions (lead sheets, if you will) of the most popular mariachi anthems AND accompanying line-by-line side-by-side translations in both Spanish and English was met with a healthy dose of skepticism. However the father was driven by his promise to his son; initial skepticism from his preferred muse was the least of his problems as he was also battling life threatening cancer.
The journey to produce the book, which was eventually marketed as ‘Mariachi For Gringos,’ took three long & painful years. During that time (2004), the Queen became the first woman inducted into the Tucson International Mariachi Conference’s Hall of Fame and gradually began to fully appreciate the raison d’etre for the project. During that time, the pair collaborated on a 10 page section of the book that was eventually called “Frequently Asked Questions and Mariachi Protocol: A Conversation with Laura Sobrino.” One can only imagine the initial consternation that she must have felt when she was asked what probably appeared to her as inane questions like: “do we stop eating and drinking when the mariachi arrive at our table? What if our bebidas (drinks) are getting warm and our caldo (soup) is getting cold? How do we know what to pay the musicians for their services? Do we pay by the song or by the amount of time they spend at our table? Is the fee based on the number of musicians in the group? Is it proper to ask any (or all) of these questions before they start playing, or do we play ‘Let’s Make a Deal’ when they’re finished?”
However, as the time to finish the book lengthened I felt that she began to realize that inherent ‘protocols’ that were clearly understood by Mexicans were not in the gringos’ DNA. The book’s 1st edition, which was released in 2006 sold out in short order and a second edition, correcting some of the author’s egregious errors (which shall remain nameless) was released the following year. A second volume, ‘Mariachi for Gringos II’ was released in 2011 and she concurred that introducing short biographies of six ‘Gringos for Mariachi’ (Cindy Shea; Jeff Nevin; Mark Fogelquist; Jonathan Clark; Timoteo, El Charro Negro; and Maya Burns), in addition to the lead sheets & Spanish/English lyrics for fifty more classics, would be a good idea.
Laura and I became good friends as the years passed. We emceed together at the Annual Mission San Juan Capistrano Battle of the Mariachi, we judged together at the Annual Anaheim Mariachi Festival’s Competition, my wife & I both became good friends of her mother, and Laura added her considerable expertise & became a pillar of strength that we leaned upon when we started our own Rosarito Beach International Mariachi & Folklorico Festival in 2010. Finally, in December of 2014, she and her good friend Nancy Munoz were invited to dinner at our home to discuss the exciting plans to bring Mariachi Nuevo Tecalitlan, the super group that Laura represented in the United States, to Rosarito in the Fall of 2015. It would be a very special occasion as MNT would be celebrating its 50th Anniversary and the Rosarito Beach Hotel, the Festival’s annual venue, would be celebrating its 90th. Rosy Torres, the President of The Boys and Girls Club, the beneficiary of our annual festival, was part of that dinner party. Laura, that night (for the very first time) shared with us some of the health issues with which she was dealing. She calmly told us that her condition was incurable, and that she now periodically had to have her lungs drained of fluid. Going forward she explained to us that, like that night, she would frequently need oxygen to aid her breathing. She was beautiful, as always, and stoically brave about what was to come.
We never would have imagined that we would never ever have another in-person conversation with her after that evening. Periodic phone calls and e-mails seemed to suffice until one day the daily Facebook conversational give-and-take was jarringly broken by a message from Nancy that Laura, who had been in a hospital’s ICU for 18 days, was being transferred to an assisted living facility..
We cried that day and have cried for part of everyday since. We cry for the loss of our very special friend, we cry for the pain her mother feels (we know what it feels like to lose a child; we have lost two), we cry for the pain her lovely children feel, we cry for the pain her closest friend feels, we cry for the pain that everyone who ever knew this remarkable woman feels.
We’re crying right now as we close our story of our (for now) interrupted conversation with a Queen.