From its sensational hybrid of Mexican and American music to its namesake inspiration, the idea behind Maria the Mexican has always been about carrying on and upholding a storied legacy.
“We chose our name because we’re proud of our heritage. It was intended to invoke a discussion about what it means to be Mexican, and it allows us to share our story,” said Maria Cuevas, who started the band with her sister Tess Cuevas in 2011.
That story would be glaringly incomplete without mentioning those who paved a trail to the band’s evolution. Its sound, character and name were influenced by Maria and Tess’s grandmother, Maria Teresa Alonzo Cuevas, who went by Teresa. A native of Topeka, Kansas, and a classically trained violinist, Teresa co-founded Mariachi Estrella, one of the first all-female mariachi bands in the United States.
“My grandmother was extremely independent and driven, especially when it came to her musical career. She was a minority in a male-dominated mariachi business, but she never let that get her down. In fact, I would say it motivated her,” Maria said.
Teresa directly passed her love and knowledge of music down to her granddaughters; both Tess and Maria joined Mariachi Estrella at age 11 and continued into their early 20s. The two then began collaborating on their own music, developing the confluence of sounds that would serve as the basis for their band. They teamed up with guitarist and songwriter Garrett Nordstrom in 2011, and Maria the Mexican took flight.
But Teresa’s granddaughters gained far more from her than musical guidance and vision. Her intrepid spirit and passion pioneered Mariachi Estrella as both an institution in the Mexican-American community and a nationally-recognized act. That’s carried over to how the sisters operate as performers and songwriters.
“She wanted to make music because that’s what she loved,” Maria said. “As female band leaders, [Tess] and I must constantly prove ourselves to others, but we have always and will always stick to what we love and what we believe — we make the music we want to make. We’re both fiercely independent, and owe much of that to her.”
In Maria the Mexican’s newest material, the Cuevas sisters apply their roots to the causes of today. The daughter of immigrants who fled to Kansas during the Mexican Revolution, grandmother Teresa came from an indigenous Mesoamerican culture; and the girls’ grandfather was a master carpenter from Guadalajara. With all the issues facing immigrants and minorities in the U.S. — particularly Latin Americans — the band is ready to speak out.
“We stand with all disenfranchised people, especially Latinos and immigrants,” Maria said. “As a group, we feel angered about the escalation of xenophobia in this country. We think the idea of building a wall is preposterous, and we support the young dreamers.”
Nordstrom — who co-writes much of the band’s material and imbues it with a modern American flair — feels that it’s the right time to let the band’s music provide a voice for a vulnerable population.
“Artists used to take a stand, but now we’re afraid of risking our next paying gig or a chance to maintain some sort of career in the business,” he said. “But it’s important to have honest conversations about social and economic opportunities. Plus, Maria is one of the most progressive women I’ve ever met; she and Tess have that infamous Latina attitude. So if they’re not going to stand up, who will?”
This year, Tess is taking a step back from the group to spend more time with her toddler son Cruz (she’ll still perform, but not at every show). The band has a new live lineup, and it’s working on material for an upcoming album. But regardless of these new directions, the Cuevas sisters are dedicated to continuing in the tradition they were born into.
“Having our grandmother as our mentor was one of the greatest gifts we could’ve received,” Maria said. “She was a feminist. An original. She paved the way for us and for many other women in music.”
Catch Maria the Mexican tonight on Knuckleheads' main stage, or next Wednesday, April 11, at Knuckleheads, opening for The Last Bandoleros. Editor's Note: We updated this article to reflect that the show has moved from the Gospel Lounge to the main stage at Knuckleheads.
—Michelle Bacon writes web content for 90.9 The Bridge and plays bass and drums in bands. Follow her on Instagram or Twitter at @michelleobacon.