It's probably not often you hear "Cuban" and "mariachi" in the same sentence. But when the reference is to Mariachi USA, you can't help but mention Cuban-born Rodri J. Rodriguez, who is at the heart of this acclaimed 5-hour Mexican music extravaganza.
On June 20, the Mariachi USA Festival returns to the Hollywood Bowl, where this multigenerational family tradition that has attracted 18,000 fans a year will celebrate its 20th anniversary.
The woman behind the silver-studded charro outfits has worn quite a few wide-brimmed hats herself: Rodriguez's titles include artist, producer, CEO, founding shareholder in a Latino-owned bank, and key player in creating a Latin category for the Grammys.
"I learned at an unjustly young age survival against all odds," the 54-year-old Rodriguez, president and CEO of Rodri Entertainment Group, told HispanicBusiness.com. And survive she did. The 7-year-old girl came to the United States from her hometown of Havana, Cuba, in 1962 as part of Operation Pedro Pan, the largest recorded exodus (14,000) of unaccompanied minors in the Western Hemisphere.
Rodriguez spent some time in a refugee camp in Florida City, Fla. ("I have little to no memory of this, having blocked out much of this time period") and was placed in a foster home in Albuquerque, N.M., where she endured an abusive foster mother for seven years.
At the age of 14, she was reunited with her parents in Los Angeles, earning her diploma from Immaculate Heart High School in a ceremony at the Hollywood Bowl, a place she would return to time and again.
After working for a record company and promoter right out of high school, the young entrepreneur struck out on her own with "$300 I had stashed away, $300 borrowed from my father, and lots of creative accounting."
In those early days, she and her father would go out after midnight to plaster Latin music concert posters on light posts all over Los Angeles streets in heavily Hispanic areas: Olympic, 6th, Pico, Figueroa. One night after hours of exhausting work, she and her dad stopped at a coffee shop for breakfast. Afterward, they went back out to find that all the posters had been ripped down by her competitors, which were dominated by men. Rodriguez broke into tears. Her mother told her: "If you're gonna be crying, you're in the wrong business." So she went right back out and put up new posters.
A breakthrough in Rodriguez's career came when she produced Julio Iglesias' first concert in the United States. Countless concerts, for Brazilian singer-songwriter Roberto Carlos, Spanish singer-composer Camilo Sesto and others, followed.
She took American acts including Miles Davis, Ella Fitzgerald and Herbie Hancock to such places as Mexico, South America and Israel.
In 1975, she and others in the Latin music industry lobbied their peers in an effort that ultimately led to the National Academy of Arts and Sciences adding a Latin category to the Grammys.
When Rodriguez reached, as she put it, the "road burn out" stage of her music producing career -- tired of traveling for 15 years with artist tours that kept her on the road nine months of the year -- she decided she had enough.
"So I identified a niche and filled it -- one that would anchor me in Los Angeles with the ability to travel as a hobby and not as a necessity." She determined that Los Angeles needed its own mariachi event to celebrate family pride and tradition, which is Mariachi USA's motto.
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