Nearly two-thirds of the city’s Mexican residents, including immigrants and the native-born, are living in low-income households, said a report by the Community Service Society.
One is German, another a New Yorker of Egyptian descent. Others are Cuban-American, Colombian, Dominican and Argentine.
These are the unlikely members of Mariachi Flor de Toloache, a New York mariachi band. Even more unlikely: all of the band’s nine members are women, the pioneers of what they believe is the city’s first all-female mariachi ensemble.
In 21st-century New York City, it may not be surprising to see women popping up in what are traditionally men’s roles. But despite a few notable female performers, mariachi has always been, and continues to be, male-dominated, though a few all-female mariachi groups have begun to gain prominence on the West Coast and in the southwestern United States.
“It’s such a macho culture,” said Mireya Ramos, 31, Flor de Toloache’s co-founder and lead singer, who is half Dominican and half Mexican, but grew up in Puerto Rico listening to her Mexican father’s mariachi recordings and performances. She recalled giving voice lessons to Mexican women whose husbands would not permit them to sing in public. “Even in America, their husbands are really like, oh, you couldn’t do these kinds of things,” she said.
Ms. Ramos founded the band about five years ago after joining another (male) mariachi band, then teaming up with a few female musicians she had met performing around the city. None had much, if any, experience in mariachi.
For some of the band’s members, performing mariachi for the first time required greater effort than simply learning new songs. Ms. Ramos’s co-founder, Shae Fiol, 34, a half-Cuban singer from Oregon whose pre-mariachi accomplishments included an original album of soul music, had to learn how to play the vihuela, a small guitar-like instrument. (Other mariachi instruments are more familiar, like the trumpet, flute and violin.)
Ms. Fiol could already play guitar, so the mechanics of the vihuela were not difficult to grasp, she said, but she is still getting used to the foreign rhythms of Latin-style music.
The learning curve had not deterred her from agreeing to join Ms. Ramos’s mariachi experiment: “I think I was feeling adventurous,” she said with a laugh.
With no formal vihuela training, she would ask every vihuela player she came across during the band’s early days for tips. They, and their bandmates, were all male.
While those mariachis were generous with help, Ms. Fiol and Ms. Ramos said, Flor de Toloache has had some skeptics, most recently when Ms. Fiol, Ms. Ramos and the band’s guitarron (bass) player, Veronica Medellin, filmed a ChapStick commercial with a short, catchy song about the lip balm. A few commenters on the YouTube video of the commercial decried their performance as inauthentic, with one commenter posting, in Spanish, “That’s not mariachi!” He said the commercial was “disrespectful.”
Most of the criticism focuses on the fact that they are not all Mexican, rather than on their gender. Ms. Medellin is the only full Mexican; Ms. Ramos is half. But the other players have quickly taken to mariachi: Eva Lou, the band’s German violinist, now writes original songs for the group despite having no background in Latin music.
“Most often people look at us and make an assumption because of the way we look, and maybe they project some of that onto what we’re about to play,” Ms. Fiol said. “But when they hear us playing it’s like, ‘Oh, they definitely sound legitimate.’”
Their performances – they are scheduled to perform on Saturday at Rockwood Music Hall — do hew to tradition in other ways. Alongside jazz standards, Brazilian songs, Outkast riffs, an Adele cover and other arrangements that nod to their diverse backgrounds, their repertoire includes Mexican classics like “La Negra,” “El Cascabel” and “El Rey,” and they play the same instruments as other mariachi groups. They say it is important to them that whatever they perform, be it a classic or an original song, they respect traditional rhythms and styles.
But Ms. Ramos founded the band to be innovative, and the musicians say their diversity, and the fact that they live in New York, gives them extra license to experiment. Ms. Fiol said she thought mariachi, like other musical genres that migrated north, was in the process of evolving.
“We’re surrounded by so many different cultures and so many different kinds of music, we just feel, culturally, like we can do it,” she said. “We’re a mix of backgrounds, musically and ethnically, nationally — we like to display all that. And why not?”
And why not embrace their femininity, too, as with the name Ms. Ramos chose? Toloache is a kind of poisonous night flower that, according to tradition, has been used in Central America for love potions for centuries. Appropriate, Ms. Ramos thought, since three of the band’s original members were recovering from painful breakups at the time of the band’s founding. A friend suggested she add “flor,” flower, for a further feminine touch.
When it came to their costumes, however, Ms. Ramos and Ms. Fiol made a counterintuitive choice: pants, the traditional male mariachi attire, black and ornamented with metallic hardware, which Ms. Ramos’s mother and the musicians sewed themselves. Their reasoning was not entirely what you might think: they said they found the men’s wear more flattering than the long skirts female mariachis normally wear.
Still, Ms. Ramos said she got a small, subversive thrill from donning a costume like the one her father used to wear.
“Wearing the suit, it’s kind of empowering,” she said. “You’re like, ‘I can wear this suit, too.’”
People of Mexican descent in New York City are far more likely to be living in poor or near-poor households than other Latinos, blacks, whites or Asians, according to a study to be released on Thursday.
Nearly two-thirds of the city’s Mexican residents, including immigrants and the native-born, are living in low-income households, compared with 55 percent of all Latinos; 42 percent of blacks and Asians; and 25 percent of whites, said the report by the Community Service Society, a research and advocacy group in New York City that focuses on poverty.
The rates are even more pronounced for children: About 79 percent of all Mexicans under age 16 in New York City live in low-income households, with about 45 percent living below the poverty line — significantly higher percentages than any other major Latino group as well as the broader population.
While the Mexican immigrants enjoy exceptionally high rates of employment, their salaries are not sufficient to support young families, the study’s authors said.
“Immigrant Mexicans appear to be having great difficulty making ends meet as they start families here,” said the study, which sought to assess socio-economic trends among young people of Mexican origin in New York City. “Incomes that might support one individual on their own or in a shared household are not enough to support a family.”
“The result could be a cycle of poverty that will pass down from generation to generation,” the authors warned.
The study defined low-income households as those making below 200 percent of the federal poverty line, which is equivalent to about $38,000 for a family of three.
The study was commissioned by the Deutsche Bank Foundation following the publication of an article in The New York Times in 2011 about extraordinarily low educational achievement among Mexican immigrants in New York City. The foundation has also started an initiative intended to improve the educational and economic achievement of the Mexican population in New York City, with an emphasis on children and their families.
The study reaffirmed The Times’s statistical and anecdotal findings about low educational achievement among first-generation Mexican immigrants. Based largely on data from the American Community Survey, the report did not try to analyze the legal status of its focus populations.
The researchers identified what they called “a promising sign” for the city’s growing Mexican population: about 67 percent of all native-born Mexicans between 16 and 24 living in the city were enrolled in school, a higher percentage than Puerto Ricans (54 percent) as well as native-born Dominicans (64 percent), native-born blacks (60 percent) and native-born whites (64 percent), though lower than native-born Asians (78 percent).
Still, even this finding was cast in shadow by more bleak data: Mexican youth who have left school — native-born and foreign-born alike — have considerably lower levels of educational attainment than their peers, with more than half lacking a high school diploma.
“The fact that native-born Mexican young people are less likely than other Latinos (and other racial/ethnic groups) to attain high school diplomas and enroll in college is extremely troubling,” the report said.
The authors concluded their study by recommending policy initiatives that would provide more educational and social support for Mexican children, families and low-wage workers, including increasing access to job training and English-language programs and raising the minimum wage, something that Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and state lawmakers are hoping to achieve.