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Rodri Rodriguez Bringing the Romance and Spectacle Back Again with 20th Mariachi USA Festival

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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.

While it may seem odd that a woman of Cuban descent would create a Mexican festival, it was really a natural occurrence for Rodriguez. "Since early in my career I worked with mariachi music giants Lucha Villa, Lola Beltran, Miguel Aceves Mejia, Juan Gabriel and so many others," she said. "In this process, mariachi romanced my ear."

Mariachi is defined in Wikipedia as a musical group, originally from Guadalajara, Mexico, that consists of at least three violins, two trumpets, one Spanish guitar, one vihuela (a high-pitched, five-string guitar), one guitarron (a small acoustic bass) and sometimes a harp. The musicians dress in silver-studded charro outfits and wide-brimmed hats, and many of them also sing.

What Rodriguez enjoys most about mariachi music is "the acoustic instrumentation and the romantic tales that can easily range from a love story to losing a horse!" Indeed, the music of mariachi touches on themes of love, death, loss and betrayal.

The single Studio City resident has shared her talents in many other areas.

Mariachi USA Foundation promotes Mexican culture through music and performing arts in school-based programs. Scholarships are awarded and free tickets are distributed to Mariachi USA.

In 2006, Rodriguez became a founding shareholder of the first Latino-owned bank in California in 35 years, Promerica bank in Los Angeles. Promerica founder and Chairman Maria Contreras-Sweet had convinced 27 powerful non-Latinos and Latinos, including Rodriguez and Henry Cisneros, the former U.S. secretary of housing under President Bill Clinton, to invest.

And Rodriguez recently became a principal partner with Manuel Meza in the Los Angeles restaurant La Fonda, the first mariachi dinner show venue in the United States. The restaurant originally opened in 1969 by Natividad "Nati" Cano as a home for his group, Los Camperos. The restaurant closed in October 2007, but Meza and his partners reopened a freshly redesigned space in early 2008.

Just as many businesses have felt the effects of the troubled economy, so too has Mariachi USA. Rodriguez, declining to give revenue figures for the festival, said: "All of us producing shows at the Hollywood Bowl have felt the sting of our frail economy, both on ticket purchaser and sponsor level." She is thankful for the major sponsors that pulled through this year: Farmers Insurance, Goya Foods, Southwest Airlines and La Fonda.

Rodriguez said fans shared that they had cut back on other expenditures to be able to attend the event, which has ticket prices that run from about $15 to $150 apiece.

"Music is not a luxury, it is a necessity," believes Rodriguez. "It nurtures the spirit like nothing else except, of course, the smiling face of a child."

Rodriguez travels each year in search of all the mariachi groups for the festival. Groups these days, she said, are composed primarily of members in their 20s and 30s, "a reflection of the audience," and often must learn Spanish in order to sing the mariachi songs. She said what is interesting is that these groups, individually, are not star groups. On their own, their concerts may play to 1,000 people or fewer, she said. But collectively, the event that is Mariachi USA draws huge crowds.

Rodriguez and festival organizers do not take lightly the responsibility they have in producing an entertaining, enjoyable show that often attracts four generations of family members and requires a crew of about 130 people. There will be six mariachi groups this year, in addition to The Mariachi USA All Starz and special guest Los Panchos.

She said Mariachi USA is considered a destination event for many, who plan their vacations around the festival date. "We will deliver a fantastic festival with the highest production quality available anywhere and the reason why our fans buy tickets a year in advance," she said.

In past years, seats have sold out well in advance of the festival. This year, Rodriguez is estimating that 16,500 of the nearly 18,000 seats will be filled. It is these fans, she said, who "will be singing our 20-year-old traditional sing-along of 'El Rey,' 'Volver Volver' and 'La Negra' with a spectacular fireworks show lighting the Hollywood sky under the stars at the Hollywood Bowl."

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