Rodri Rodriguez (Courtesy Mariachi USA)

The Cubana who brought mariachi to the American masses

Rodri Rodriguez, founder of the renowned 23rd annual Mariachi USA Festival taking place tomorrow at the Los Angeles Hollywood Bowl, wasn’t born Mexican. She says it was mariachi music that comforted her while her birth parents were still in Cuba.

Rodriguez arrived alone to the U.S. at age 7 through Operation Pedro Pan – a program created in December 1960 at the request of parents in Cuba to provide an opportunity to send their children to Miami to avoid Marxist-Leninist indoctrination. Upon arrival, she says she was placed in a foster home in Albuquerque, NM, where she lived for seven years.

“At an early age, I had to learn how to be a survivor,” says Rodriguez whose destiny placed her in a heavily Mexican-populated city. “I fell in love with mariachi and everything Mexican.”

When her parents were able to come to the U.S., Rodriguez says she joined them in Los Angeles – where she finished high school and developed a deep-seated relationship with music. She started working for a record company, and in 1976, she founded her own production company Rodri Entertainment, Inc. Only a year earlier, she says she played a key role in the decision to have the Latin category added to the Grammy Awards.

“Music has always been my career,” says the lively Rodriguez who traveled throughout Latin America and Europe at a young age booking talent such as, Julio Iglesias, Vicki Carr, and Gloria Estefan to name a few. “In 1990, I hankered for my hometown Los Angeles and created something iconic for all people, because everyone loves mariachi.”

Carlos Parra, founder of Mariachi los Toros, first met Rodriguez when he was only 12-years-old, when his school was a part of her Mariachi Foundation. He says she inspired him to start his own group. Tomorrow will mark the fifth Mariachi USA Festival he and his 11-person group will be performing in.

The Cubana who brought mariachi to the American masses carlosparra people NBC Latino News

Carlos Parra, of Mariachi los Toros, performing at the Mariachi USA Festival on Saturday, June, 21, 2008. (Courtesy Mariachi USA )

“She’s an inspirational woman who was big enough to bring mariachi to one of the biggest stages in the world,” says Parra. “She also made mariachi be seen at a higher level. She is a hard-working strong woman who went for it, not only for the Hollywood Bowl but throughout her career.”

The Hollywood Bowl seats more than 17,000, and Rodriguez says tickets often sell out.

“We’re the number one, longest running, paid annual Latino event,” she says, also giving credit to Belle Ortiz, one of her mentors who produced the very first Mariachi Festival in the U.S. Rodriguez adds that what makes Mariachi USA so special is the unity it creates among the audience. “The euphoria occurs the second that they set foot on the property. People start getting there at 1pm, and the doors open at 4pm. The show starts at 6pm until 10:30pm. We had to create activities because people couldn’t wait to go.”

She says she loves to see people gather from all over the world – as far as Europe and Australia – bringing food, flowers and candles.

“We pick the best mariachi groups in the U.S. and Mexico, as well as ballet folklorico,” says Rodriguez, adding that there will also be an Aztec number this year called “The Dance of Fire,” as well as the famous fireworks finale. “I’ve chosen a woman to conduct for the first time – Laura Sobrino – from a leading mariachi group right now.”

Rodriguez says every year is cause for celebration, and she hopes to one day take her show on a national tour, and even to her native Cuba.

“I’m the woman I was meant to be,” she says. “Daily, I trust I am where I’m supposed to be, and it’s a great place.”

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