Photos by Alex Ferrari. Courtesy the artist, Intersection, and Music Makes Us
The Pride of Nashville
By Mikeie Honda Reiland
On her first day at her new job, Gaby Fuentes stood alone at the front of a windowless room in Glencliff High School. Nashville’s only high school mariachis stared back at her, blank expressions on their faces. These faces wore the features of Kurdistan and El Salvador, Vietnam and México.
They were going to wear traditional uniforms, she said. They were going to get a grade. They were going to practice outside of school. And in less than a month, they were going to play at the new mayor’s inauguration.
“Whether you like it or not,” she told them, “you’re going to learn something here.”
Silence filled the music room. Everyone seemed to appraise her. Finally, a boy named Luis raised his hand. He was popular and good-looking. He played on the soccer team.
“I don’t know, miss,” he said. “I feel like I can play better than you.”
Gaby stared at him. You’re going to make me respond, aren’t you? she thought.
“Let’s have a play-off,” Luis continued. “Me against you. We’ll see who’s better.”
Gaby paused for a moment, allowing the challenge to dangle in the space between them.
“Mijo, that would be really unfair,” she said. “Because you’d have to learn how to play first.”
The room drew in its breath. “Oh my gosh,” the kid next to Luis murmured.
Gaby had broken the ice, but she still had to earn their respect. Here was another new director, their third in the past few years. Here was a 5'3" woman telling them they were going to work like they never had before. Most boys in the group towered over her.
Who is this woman? they wondered. And is she going to leave us, too?
Nolensville Road, Nashville’s five-lane Tigris and Euphrates, runs south from the fairgrounds all the way out of the city limits. On a typical day, you might see kids kicking a soccer ball near the Salahadeen Center in Little Kurdistan. Or families scooping up salsa with chips at La Hacienda, where they used to make corn tortillas in a factory out back. Or a used car rumbling off one of the road’s no-money-down auto lots.
A mile off of Nolensville Road, along Antioch Pike, sits Glencliff High. It’s a beige brick building, one that looks like many other public schools in many other cities. Across the street, a tiny brick Iglesia del Nazareno neighbors single-level homes with vinyl siding. Newer, brighter homes dot the neighborhood, like raisins in a bowl of oatmeal.
Within Glencliff’s halls, students yell to each other in Vietnamese, Arabic, Spanish. One out of every two Glencliff students is Hispanic. One out of every five is white. They speak at least twenty-six languages in all, not including native dialects, while spinning the combinations on their lockers, grabbing their textbooks for AP classes, twisting wrenches in the auto shop.
Gaby moved to Nashville from San Antonio in 2015 to direct the mariachi group at Glencliff. She and her husband found a place outside the city, a homestead where their horses share a corral with a Baby Yoda lawn ornament.
During her first few months, Gaby felt like she spent her days untangling wires. In the morning, she taught high school classes to the performing group at Glencliff. In the afternoon, she drove up the street to Wright Middle, where she taught future performers.
Her middle school classes were the most challenging. The kids were younger, more vulnerable, ready to lash out and dismiss Gaby, the replacement for a beloved director who relocated to Florida.
You’re just gonna leave, they seemed to tell her.
The high school kids with Mexican heritage hadn’t really grown up with the music. In San Antonio, it had seemed like everyone listened to mariachi at backyard barbecues and family dinners. But here in Nashville, kids might only know Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlán, the most famous group in the world, or maybe the song “La Bamba.”
It was frustrating, but Gaby knew how these kids felt. There was a time when Gaby herself didn’t want to claim her Mexican heritage.
When Gaby was fourteen years old growing up in San Antonio, her mother, Julia María, asked her to join a mariachi group. Gaby was the youngest of three girls, and her older sister, Ana, played mariachi at Six Flags Fiesta Texas. Gaby initially refused. People compared her to her sisters all the time, which was reason enough for her to reject mariachi.
“It’s such beautiful music,” Julia María told Gaby. “Don’t you want to play it?” She saw mariachi as a way for her daughter to connect with her culture.
What was so beautiful about men strutting around in suits carrying enormous guitars? Gaby wondered. On the stereo in her room, she blasted Europe and Whitesnake, Def Leppard and Mötley Crüe. She preferred electric guitars to vihuelas and guitarrones.
But at last, to appease her mother, she joined. She thought she’d outfox Julia María by choosing the trumpet, the most annoying instrument she could think of.
“I thought she’d let me stop,” Gaby said. “Because I’d sound like an elephant in the backyard.”
To her family’s shock, Gaby fell in love with mariachi. Within the Fuentes home, Gaby’s trumpet accompanied the din of her father’s saw and hammer as he worked on projects for his carpentry business. She devoted her weekends to concerts and competitions. She joined an all-female group that played around town.
During a rehearsal, one of Gaby’s directors translated the lyrics to “Qué Bonita es Mi Tierra.” Gaby spoke some Spanish at home, but she had lost a lot of it at school.
“How pretty is my dirt?” she asked, confused.
“How beautiful my land is,” the director corrected.
There’s no rainbow in the world, the song says, that can compare to the colors of México, to its skies and its seas. God formed México to be the pride of the world.
That moment has always stuck with Gaby. He’s saying that out of all the countries in the world, México is the one?
“It’s the flag, brother,” José Hernández, the founder of Mariachi Sol de México, a Grammy-nominated group, once said of his music. “It’s like waving the Mexican flag. Mariachi is the flag wherever it goes.”
As a teenager, Gaby felt like she wasn’t from México—though she didn’t feel like she was from America either. As she embraced mariachi, she finally understood what her mother had tried to tell her for years. She accepted that México was a part of her. And she felt proud to be Mexican.
I met Gaby in 2020. I felt kinship with her because I also struggled to embrace my heritage as a teenager. Growing up in Nashville, my older sister read manga, practiced Kendo in the gym, and traveled to Japan the summer after her sophomore year. I read Sports Illustrated, watched SpongeBob, and played Ultimate Frisbee. My sister learned Hiragana and Katakana. I learned Spanish so I could practice with Arcelia, our family’s best friend, who grew up in México D.F. I first heard about Gaby and the Glencliff group through Arcelia.
Because Mom played as a kid, my sister and I both picked up the violin. We followed the Suzuki Method to the letter, listening to CDs in the car, playing passages of Gossec’s Gavotte over and over until we got them just right. When we played well at recitals, Mom closed her eyes and tried not to cry.
During vacations, we put on kimonos and drove to Obon festivals in the parking lot of a Buddhist temple. We sat on couches at my uncle’s house, eating bowls of beef teriyaki and watching Pixar movies. Everyone else used chopsticks. I used a fork.
I didn’t get it. I wanted us to act like everyone else. I wanted us to blend in.
Over time, my sister grew lean, pale, and lanky, like our white father. I inherited Mom’s darker complexion and short arms and legs. Her friends sometimes tell her that I’m her spitting image.
When I was twenty-four, Mom and I flew from Nashville to LAX. We descended an escalator to the ground floor, where palm trees swayed in a light breeze beyond the glass. We collected our rental car—a Honda, like my middle name, like Mom’s last name, and drove north, glass and smog melting into dust and desert. We pulled into Lone Pine and rolled down Main Street, passing weather-beaten signs advertising hardware and sporting goods. We checked into our motel.
The next morning, we drove to the prison.
The government called it “Manzanar,” or “apple orchard” in Spanish. In the distance, the Sierras looked like watercolors, achingly beautiful, enough to make people pack up their lives and move West—unlike the Japanese Americans, who were kept West. But right then, it was hard to imagine apples growing there. The wind was a battering ram, and there was nothing out there to block it. It kicked up dust, swirling it, throwing it in our faces. The cold sliced through our clothing, lashed at our skin.
Busloads of Japanese Americans had shown up for the annual pilgrimage. A tour guide talked about FDR’s Executive Order 9066, a footnote in my AP U.S. History textbook.
Mom closed her eyes. She nodded along. Her parents spent the war in a camp like this one in Arizona. Their fellow Americans kept them from leaving. When they got out, they had to fit in. Had to act as American as they could, hiding from the Japanese Exclusion League.
“You know, Mikeie, our generation didn’t talk about camp,” Mom’s Auntie Marion once told me. “It was the younger generations who said ‘that was no fair.’ Your mom is really into all that kind of history. We never talked about it. We just endured it.
“You come from very strong people,” she said. “If you should face any hardships, you’re gonna make it. You’re gonna figure it out, and you’re gonna make it.”
The pilgrimage to Manzanar was my turning point, like Gaby learning the meaning of “Qué Bonita es Mi Tierra.” Finally, I got it.
So, when I met Gaby, we connected. I found it moving to hear how despite her early impulse to blend in, to “be American,” she eventually embraced her parents’ culture.
During the fall of her senior year of high school, Gaby attended a competition at the San Antonio Municipal Auditorium right on the river downtown. In the hallways, elementary schoolers carrying violins walked past college students in full trajes. The winners of each division would open for Mariachi Vargas.
Most groups dress in traditional black. If they want to pop, they’ll add color to their moños, the bows around their necks. Gaby thought that groups who deviated from this norm were showing off, trying too hard.
The lights dimmed when the UT–Pan American group took the stage. They dressed in olive green suits with polished gold buttons that shone in the stage light. They wore wide-brimmed white hats. Gaby stared, transfixed by their simplicity, their elegance.
Two violinists began plucking their strings. Then, they did something Gaby had never seen before. Slowly at first, and then more insistently, they began hissing and blowing into the f-holes of their violins. It sounded like a steam engine starting up. The rhythm section entered. Someone made a sound like a train whistle. The guitarrones strummed faster and faster. The trumpets made laughing sounds.
The group had just pulled off a flawless rendition of “El Tren,” a Mariachi Vargas staple. The crowd stood and roared.
Gaby watched it all from a seat high in the balcony. “I felt like I was playing ‘Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star,’” she recalls, “and they were playing a concerto.”
The following summer, Gaby enrolled at UT–Pan American, moving to the Río Grande Valley.
The Valley overflowed with mariachi, even more so than San Antonio. Despite all that talent, there was only one collegiate group, made up of about fifteen people. And Gaby was one of them—their harpist, the first member of the group who wasn’t from the Valley. She felt starstruck at first. But the rhythm section took her in. They called her “San Antone.”
The rest of the group had lived on the border most of their lives. Gaby was just learning what the border meant. For the first time, she was speaking to people in real Spanish—not what she called “white people Spanish.” Many mariachi competitions took place in border towns. After performances finished for the night, the group would cross the border into Reynosa, a city perched on the banks of the Río Grande. They wound their way through the streets, muggy air rising off the river. Finally, they reached their destination—Cielo, a nightclub with a sky-blue neon sign.
Gaby still remembers the club’s musky smell, the alcohol and sweat. She remembers the floors, slick with cheap beer. While her friends drank and danced, she checked on everyone. At the end of the night, she made sure that everyone piled back into their cars around two or three in the morning, re-crossed the border, and got home safe.
As she gained experience, Gaby’s perception of the group shifted. They were good, sure. But they had plenty of room to grow. There was so much knowledge available, but her bandmates weren’t interested in reaching beyond the Valley. Gaby wanted more.
Years later, these experiences drove Gaby to become a mariachi director. She wanted to grow, to share her Mexican pride with the next generation. She hadn’t met many strong female role models in mariachi. Her students, she resolved, wouldn’t feel that same void.
A year after graduation, Gaby was back in San Antonio. It was late spring, and she was traveling around town with an all-female mariachi group. They wore turquoise suits and played Mother’s Day serenades, a cherished tradition in the mariachi world.
It was three A.M. The group had just taken a short rest, their first break in hours. Gaby’s feet ached. She had spent most of the past twenty-four hours on her feet, playing songs in high-heeled boots. The group felt cranky.
“This sucks!” they moaned. “Why do we do this to ourselves?”
They had one more house left to visit. Everything was dark when they arrived. They set up around a white car parked in the driveway outside the garage. They took a few deep breaths and started to play “Las Mañanitas,” the traditional Mother’s Day ballad.
Halfway through the song, the house remained silent. Hurry up, the band thought. Bring your mother out. Let’s get this over with.
Finally, the door opened.
The son stepped out into the driveway, pushing his mother ahead of him. She was thin, frail. A wisp of a woman. She sat in a wheelchair.
Oh, shit, Gaby thought. We’re jerks.
The group kept playing.
“El día en que tú naciste,” they sang. “Nacieron todas las flores.”
The day you were born, all of the flowers were born.
The mother started to cry.
Gaby felt tears in her eyes. She looked around. Everyone else in her group was crying, too.
A few weeks into Gaby’s tenure at Glencliff, the group traveled downtown to play at Mayor Megan Barry’s inauguration after-party. The party was supposed to take place on the lawn in front of the courthouse, but the pouring September rain drove everyone inside the Music City Center, right across from the Country Music Hall of Fame.
In the hallway outside the Grand Ballroom, where 4,000 people waited, the group started their sound check, all of them dressed in borrowed clothes. The kids hadn’t owned uniforms under previous directors, so Gaby had dipped into her personal stores.
Inside the ballroom, everyone felt pregame jitters, as if a basketball game were about to tip off. Later on, Jason Isbell and Amanda Shires would take the stage.
“I was just in my mode,” Gaby says. “And when I get in my mode, it’s like there’s nothing around me. It’s like zoom! Tunnel vision.”
She began pointing, arranging, tuning. When they took the stage, they missed a few notes, but brought joy and energy. Considering they’d only practiced for a few weeks, Gaby felt proud of the effort.
They performed “El Rey,” a ranchera, or country, song. They played “Cariño,” a slow love song. And, of course, they played “La Bamba.” That day, the group learned a universal truth: no matter how perplexed an audience might be by mariachi, they’ll still get up and sing and dance and clap to “La Bamba.”
After the inauguration gig, the kids started to treat Gaby differently. Everyone greeted her when she walked in the door. They joked that she was their stereotypical Mexican mom. When they misbehaved, she motioned to her shoe.
“Ohhhh!” They laughed. “She’s gonna hit us with the chancla!”
They also put in the work. They performed about twice a week, traveling up and down Nolensville Road, playing standards for grateful audiences at quinceañeras, weddings, and birthday parties.
Gaby took the demand for their services as a compliment. But each performance required hours of preparation, and the music demanded their engagement. Mariachi is expressive and theatrical, one of the most extroverted forms of music in the world. Some performances took place on weekends, or 7:00 on a school night. They crisscrossed Nashville, paying for their own transportation. They subsisted on donations.
During one fall break, they finally got a respite from performing. Gaby hosted a potluck at the school. Kids brought dishes from their home countries. The whole group pigged out on egg rolls and fried rice, chips and salsa. Another day, Gaby hosted a taco party in her room. Outside her door, in the grass behind the school, she set up a barbecue pit. While the rest of the school studied trigonometry and Chaucer, the mariachi kids stood over the pit, grilling bistec and pollo asado, hiding the smoke as best they could.
Some kids were still learning English when they joined the mariachi program. In their other classes, they rarely spoke. But in the mariachi room, they could talk to people who understood them. Most of the kids in the group with Latin American heritage had grown up in the States. Like Gaby, they grew up on a border, caught between their country and their ancestry. When they introduced themselves to Gaby, they anglicized their names, putting an English accent on them.
“No,” Gaby responded. “What’s your name?” She repeated the question until they pronounced their names properly.
“Never be ashamed of who you are,” she told them. “And who your parents are and what sacrifices they’re making for you.”
Members of the Glencliff High School mariachi program perform with Nashville-based ensemble Intersection in 2016.
On Gaby’s first day at Glencliff, a sophomore named Polly Nguyen stared into space. Polly was born in Nashville to Vietnamese parents and spent time abroad before attending Glencliff. During her time with the mariachis, she had learned not to trust directors. Her first director had promised them a trip to Dollywood. But he ran into roadblock after roadblock with funding and travel. He grew so frustrated that he quit in the middle of Polly’s seventh-grade year.
“I was mad about it for years,” she says. “I always blamed him for stuff. But I needed to get over it. He was just trying to get us to do more things.”
Polly loved the next director, Imer Santiago. He showed her how to play the violin. He fulfilled the previous director’s promise, taking the group to Dollywood. But at the end of her freshman year, he left for Florida.
Gaby noticed Polly right away. Oh, she’s cute! Minutes later, she saw Polly snap at a boy who annoyed her, her green eyes flashing dangerously. We need women like this in mariachi, Gaby thought. She saw herself in Polly.
During Polly’s junior year, Gaby challenged her to solo on “Bidi Bidi Bom Bom.”
“I can’t do it,” Polly said. She didn’t think she could meet Selena’s standard.
“Yes, you can,” Gaby told her. “And we’re done talking about it.”
When they performed, Polly missed a few notes.
“I messed up,” she says. “I was so embarrassed.”
But Gaby approached her after. “You did a good job!” Gaby told her. “You tried!”
On Polly’s phone, there’s a photo of the group from five years ago. In the back of the room stands a lean, baby-faced boy with dark, floppy hair. He clutches his vihuela and grins.
Aaron has since lost his baby face. He’s cut his hair short. He stands 6'2" or 6'3", tall and good-looking. He wears denim and boots, clothes for his job as a construction manager in his parents’ business. He looks like a boy who’s had to grow up quickly. But when we meet at Starbucks, he orders a mocha Frappuccino with chocolate drizzle.
“Ms. Fuentes told me about this drink,” he says.
Like Polly, Aaron still remembers Gaby’s first day.
“She was like a coach who was making us do drills,” he says. “She came in and said, ‘We’re doing practices. We’re going to kick butt. And we’re going to have a lot of fun.’”
Aaron bought in right away. Gaby started calling him her “nephew.” She asked him to solo, then to sing. He loved how she never sugarcoated anything, how she explained exactly why they were doing everything.
“She definitely has that Hispanic vibe,” he says. “Like if you mess up, she’s gonna tell you that you messed up.”
When Gaby entered Aaron’s life, his relationship with his mother had started to fracture. Their family immigrated to the States from México when he was six years old. Within two months, his father was deported. His mother raised three kids while working two jobs. Some nights, Aaron caught her crying in the kitchen. Even as a six-year-old, he felt the gravity of the situation.
Like a lot of immigrant kids, Aaron heard the same refrain: discipline, responsibility. Don’t be a bum. Don’t drink. Don’t, don’t, don’t. To keep him in line, Aaron’s mother lashed out, nitpicking each choice he made. One day, it all became too much.
“I’m done,” he told her. And he walked out of the house.
His family lived right behind Glencliff. Aaron knew he was about to tear up. He walked straight to the music room.
“Hey, Ms. Fuentes.”
She looked up from her desk. “You okay?”
Aaron appreciated this response. Gaby didn’t ask him what he was doing, or why he was there. She just sat and listened.
Aaron began studying at Trevecca University in 2018. His dark eyes light up when discussing psychology, especially Jung. But he’s majoring in business administration to prepare to run the family business. Right now, he’s taking a break from school to help out his mother and stepfather.
Trevecca, Aaron explains, is a polarized place. There are conservative Christians and woke, liberal Christians. When Trevecca invited Governor Bill Lee, an outspoken critic of US–México immigration, to speak on campus, the liberals planned a walkout.
What would Ms. Fuentes say? Aaron thought.
Instead of walking out, Aaron showed up in the auditorium. He stood in the front row. He wore a sombrero and a t-shirt that read “Mariachi Hero.”
In October 2019, the Nashville Symphony performed music from Coco to accompany a screening of the film, which tells the story of a Mexican boy who dreams of becoming a musician. The symphony gave the Glencliff group free tickets for performing in the lobby beforehand.
That night, they left their homes in and around Nolensville Road, carpooling downtown to the Schermerhorn Symphony Center. Hefting their instrument cases, they climbed the front steps, looking out over the pedestrian bridge that crosses the Cumberland River.
It was fall, but Southern heat and humidity lingered in the evening air. One street over on Broadway, the famous honky-tonks Tootsie’s and Robert’s were just revving up for the night. Two blocks away, the Ryman presided over Broadway and 5th.
The group met up in the symphony’s board room, where they started to unpack their instruments.
“This is where all the decisions are made!” Gaby told them. “This is where the head honchos are!”
“Cool,” one kid replied, holding out his violin. “Can you tune this for me?”
As people filtered into the lobby off of Broadway, the group played “El Rey” and “Cariño.” They also played “Cielito Lindo.”
Most Mexicans know the words to “Cielito Lindo.” Fans sang it in Moscow after the Mexican national team beat Germany in the 2018 World Cup, their words ringing around an 81,000-seat stadium. They continued singing it as they rode the metro back to their hotels, banging on the walls and ceilings, dressed in the green, red, and white tricolor of the Mexican flag.
In the symphony lobby, the Glencliff mariachis sang “Cielito Lindo.” Downtown, among the city’s most elegant people, they waved the Mexican flag.
“Ay, ay, ay, ay!” they roared. “Cannnnta y no llores!
Sing and don’t cry.
After they finished their performance, they sat together in the audience. They marveled at the dangling chandeliers, the high white ceilings, the elevated box seats.
The lights dimmed. The movie’s first frames played out on the screen. The conductor waved his baton. The symphony launched into the first few notes of the Disney theme. In México, urban socialites used to look down on mariachi: low-class farmer music, they called it. But here Gaby was, in Music City, USA. And within the halls of the city’s fanciest building, her kids were playing mariachi. They were celebrating Mexican culture. They were honoring her life’s work. And the group was experiencing it all together, like a family.
Silently, she started to cry.
After they packed up their instruments, the group piled back into their cars. They wound their way through the snarl of traffic on Broadway then drove south on I-65 headed for La Tennessee, a dive close to their homes along Nolensville Road.
The kids sat in booths, sipping Mexican Cokes and tamarind Jarritos. They’d heard Gaby speak about the all-night taquerías in San Antonio. Mariachi bands would meet there after gigs. They’d talk deep into the night, rehashing the evening over tacos and Modelos. Now, together, the kids were living out a piece of the rock star life Gaby had sold them on.
Gaby ordered enchiladas verdes. Most of the kids ordered quesadillas. They ate off each other’s plates, sampling all the food, dining family style.
“Wow,” one of the kids said, awestruck. “The symphony played Coco?” He still couldn’t believe that Mexican culture had taken center stage in Nashville.
Gaby smiled. She felt pride, in her kids, her country, and her new city.
“Yeah” she said. “And you played right before.”
One spring evening, near the end of a recent school year—in the days before the pandemic came to Nashville and practices migrated to Zoom—Gaby and her mariachis grabbed their instruments and piled into cars. They traveled from home to home along Nolensville Road and Antioch Pike.
At each stop, they played “Las Mañanitas.” Each time, one of their mothers came to the door. By the end of the song, each mother began crying. Many of them worked double shifts or multiple jobs. They’d never seen their children play before.
At the end of the night, the students hopped out of the cars and ran into the Glencliff music room, apparently in a rush to pack up their instruments and leave. Gaby lingered, unloading her trunk.
When she finished, she walked into the school. She opened the door to the music room. The group stood before her, instruments in hand.
“El día en que tú naciste,” they sang. “Nacieron todas las flores.”
The day you were born, all of the flowers were born.
Once more, Gaby felt tears in her eyes. Throughout her life, she had played many Mother’s Day serenades.
But she had never received one.