It’s as if he were born to lead a world-renowned mariachi ensemble. In fact, the die may have been cast before he was born. His father was a professional mariachi musician in the coastal town of Ensenada, Baja California, just south of the border with the United States. He undoubtedly heard the music from inside his mother’s womb.
Jesús Guzmán was born in 1964 and known by the nickname “Chuy.” By the early 1970s, he was inspired to follow in his father’s footsteps as a violinist. After school each day, “I would get my violin, my records, and practice into the night,” he recalls. He started his own group with his brothers and friends, rehearsed them, and took up the guitarrón and vihuela (bass and rhythm guitars, respectively) as well as the violin.
As a young man, Chuy moved to Tijuana, playing in the restaurant Carnitas Uruapan, known for decades as the home of the best mariachi music of the region. There in 1984 and 1985, he experienced one of the most intense learning opportunities that mariachi culture offers: playing ten to seventeen hours a day in the demanding musical setting known as al talón (from talón, “heel,” referring to walking from customer to customer). Successful talón musicians must know by memory a repertoire of literally thousands of pieces, since they get paid for playing requests. Put simply, if musicians don’t know a song requested by a customer, they don’t get paid. It’s a powerful incentive to build repertoire.
At Carnitas Uruapan, Chuy played violin with his regular group from noon to about 10 p.m., and often would sit in with the other house mariachi which took over at 10 and played until the customers left, usually at 4 or 5 a.m. He estimates that on a long work day, he would play about 150 pieces.
“It was like a train runs over you, but it was beautiful experience, an experience spending time with two very beloved groups there in Tijuana.”
Along the way, he took up the fourth of the four main mariachi instruments—the trumpet—to fill in when a trumpet player couldn’t show up or needed a break. Chuy forged his impressive musical skills in the two major “conservatories” of mariachi culture: the family and al talón.
His rigorous training prepared him well for the next chapter of his musical life. He knew of Mariachi Los Camperos who lived and worked across the border in Los Angeles. Camperos leader Nati Cano would occasionally stop by the restaurant. Chuy was determined to become a member of the group, and in 1986 he relocated to Los Angeles to be near them. He would often stop by Los Camperos’ restaurant on Wilshire Boulevard, La Fonda de Los Camperos, to admire the group. When he inquired about joining them, the disappointing answer was that there were no musician jobs available because there were already thirteen musicians in the group—large for a mariachi.
Instead, Chuy joined Mariachi Los Galleros, led by Pedro Hernández. For the next three years, he played in Hernández’s dinner theater restaurant, El Rey, in Montebello, east of downtown Los Angeles. His patience paid off. Pedro’s brother Chencho Hernández, a renowned trumpet player with Los Camperos, told him that the sudden death of one of the Camperos members created an opening, and that he had convinced Cano that Chuy was right for the job. In 1989, Cano invited Chuy to join his group, and over the next twenty-five years, his education continued as Cano’s apprentice, disciple, and, eventually, his musical director.
Under Cano’s guidance, Chuy honed another of his skills: music arranging. He remembers how Cano would tell him, “‘Look for simplicity. The song is already there. Look for a touch-up,’ he would say. ‘Why are you going to put a thousand notes into it? It’s as if you were to put five paintings one on top of the other. No, no, no. It gets in the way.’ Sometimes, because of wanting to make something grander, we clash with the song. If something is beautiful, why would one saturate it with a thousand notes? It’s better to just give it a touch-up so that the essence, the charm of the song can come out.”
By 1992, Guzmán was arranging pieces for Los Camperos, and his skill grew rapidly. His creativity was key to the GRAMMY-nominated Smithsonian Folkways albums ¡Llegaron Los Camperos! (2005) and Tradición, Arte y Pasión (2015), and GRAMMY winner Amor, Dolor y Lágrimas: Música Ranchera (2008).
In 2014, Cano watched Los Camperos one final time before losing his battle with cancer. The group was performing in Guadalajara’s historic concert hall Teatro Degollado as part of the city’s annual Encuentro Internacional del Mariachi (International Mariachi Gathering). Chuy recalls how he could feel Cano scrutinizing every detail of the performance. Afterward, Cano told him, “You have the best mariachi.” Chuy reflects, “Such a humble person, so great, as Mr. Cano was. To get flattery like that is something very special and beautiful. It’s the best thing I have.”
Today, Chuy leads Los Camperos, providing the vision for its sound and repertoire and performing widely in high-profile venues. In 2018, they provided the musical accompaniment for the New York debut of the world’s first mariachi opera, Cruzar la Cara de la Luna (“To Cross the Face of the Moon”) by the New York City Opera. On August 23, Smithsonian Folkways released the ensemble’s first album with Chuy at the helm, De Ayer para Siempre. He continues Cano’s legacy of teaching the tradition throughout the United States and parts of Latin America. Chuy is living his dream, and he is dreaming ever bigger.
“I’m not going to tell you that the work was easy, but I feel good about what has happened in my life, in my path as a musician. There’s still a lot to do. My dream will come to an end only when I am gone.”
With his hard-earned talent, determination, and artistry, Chuy Guzmán is an exemplar of why mariachi music is a living tradition and not a frozen relic. While he and his beloved Mariachi Los Camperos honor the best of the past through repertoire, style, and the classic Camperos big-bodied sound, they make the old new again, touching up musical chestnuts with a splash of creativity. By creating new songs in old molds, Los Camperos guide a new generation of passionate young people into the music’s future.
Daniel Sheehy is director and curator emeritus of Smithsonian Folkways Recordings.