The Dean of Mariachi Harpists
The harp tradition of the sleepy, southern Jalisco village of Zapotiltic goes back to at least the 19th Century. Native José Mendoza (1903-1990) was among the finest practitioners of the instrument that town was famous for. In 1934, Don José joined a mariachi led by Silvestre Vargas in the neighboring town of Tecalitlán, and he was a member of that now-famous group when it moved its home base to Mexico City. Although José returned to Zapotiltic less than a year later, the left-hand bass octave technique that he introduced during his brief tenure with Vargas has been fundamental for every guitarrón and harp player who succeeded him in Mariachi Vargas.
The only musician of 18 children born to Jose and Filomena Mendoza was Arturo, a boy who learned his father’s craft exceedingly well. In 1945, the 15-year-old harp prodigy—like his father before him—was invited to join Mariachi Vargas.
“I took him (to Mexico City) on the train,” recalled José Mendoza. “We arrived on Thursday of Easter week, and there was a program on XEW (radio) with the Hermanas Ruelas. They sang Jalisco and Cocula, both in the key of G. He didn’t miss a note! Gaspar(father of Silvestre Vargas, and guitarist with the mariachi) said: ‘this kid’s going to be good, you’ll see!’”
Arturo remained with the world’s most famous mariachi for over 50 years, witnessing the rise, fall, and subsequent rebirth of mariachi music, and becoming a major contributor to its evolution. In conjunction with three generations of guitarrón players—Gonzalo Meza, Nati Santiago, and Enrique Santiago—Mendoza continued the precedent set by his father in defining the mariachi bass line as we know it today.
In 1957 Arturo married Silvestre Vargas’ daughter, Estela, with whom he has five children. When Vargas was forced to limit his activities due to health problems in 1959, Mendoza took over the group’s administration from his father-in-law. Mendoza remained Coordinator of Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlán until he retired from the group in 1996.
Arturo and Estela Mendoza currently reside in Zapotiltic. Their son, Enrique—continuing the tradition established by his father and grandfather—plays harp with Mariachi Vargas today.