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Gabriel B. Zavala, trailblazing mariachi performer and teacher, dies

Gabriel B. Zavala
Gabriel B. Zavala in 1968.
(Courtesy of Oliver Zavala)

Once, Gabriel B. Zavala envisioned himself playing rock ’n’ roll in Mexico in front of a million fans. He wrote music and played his guitar in front of anyone who would listen.

But the young man’s dream turned into a different reality. He needed money and there were finite instruments he could buy in his hometown of Acámbaro, Guanajuato.

He followed the path paved by his father and uncles. He headed north in 1965 to earn money as a bracero in the city of Placentia. When he had saved enough, he’d return to his native land with a PA system, a Fender guitar and other instruments — ready for stardom.

That was the plan, anyway. Except Zavala never returned home. Instead he cultivated a new audience in the U.S. keen on embracing their heritage through music, albeit a different type.

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“He built a bridge across an immigrant generation of elders, parents and youth as they became active in the U.S. and Orange County, a place that is known to be very conservative and not necessarily making diversity a priority,” said Leonor Xóchitl Pérez, director and founder of the Mariachi Women’s Foundation.

This is the story of Zavala, a mariachi teacher, who died Feb. 26 of complications from COVID-19, according to his son Oliver Zavala. He was 76.

Before he became a teacher, Zavala picked strawberries and oranges and later melted steel at the Anaheim Foundry. During the evenings, he attended English classes or rehearsed mariachi songs with his brothers. They were known as Los Siete Hermanos Zavala and enjoyed local stardom for over a decade.

The trailblazers were one of the first mariachi groups to play in Orange County in the late 1960s, and business boomed. They performed at restaurants, weddings and churches and shared the stage with popular singers such as Amalia Mendoza, Gerardo Reyes and Angelica Maria.

Gabriel B. Zavala stands next to his six brothers.
Gabriel B. Zavala, pictured bottom far left, poses for a photo with his six brothers for his band’s promotional material.
(Courtesy of Oliver Zavala)

Zavala’s band and solo act never got any big record deals or played major arenas, and his desire for fame slowly faded. His religious spirituality helped him realize his life’s mission.

In 1996, Zavala created the nonprofit Rhythmo Mariachi Academy in Anaheim, where he taught thousands of students the power of music and the culture of mariachi.

“In reality, he wanted to bring kids and the Latino youth in particular to feel comfortable in their own shoes, in their own skin of being Mexican,” said Oliver Zavala, who started singing with his dad when he was 5. “Sometimes it’s difficult as a first-generation immigrant to adapt to a different culture. Your friends are eating Wonder Bread and you’re eating tortillas.”

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For Gabriel Zavala, every lesson was an opportunity to share and analyze the meanings behind song lyrics. He encouraged students to use their hands to connect with the audience and distributed sheets of diaphragms showing exactly how students should open their mouth when singing. He and his son taught children how to pluck the guitarrón and play the violin and trumpet. At the end of class, students regrouped to perform songs together.

Vivian Fernandez met the beloved teacher when she was a shy preteen in 2004. Her parents enrolled her in classes when she told them she wanted to play the guitar. During her first day of class, Zavala singled her out to lead the group in a song of her choosing.

“I freaked out. I had never sung in my life. All I knew was Selena [Quintanilla’s cover of] ‘Tú, sólo tú,’” the Santa Ana native said. “I don’t know how I did it, but maestro pushed me to do it. He had all this confidence in me. It ended up being the best thing to happen to me.”

She returned to class every week after that and took private singing lessons with Zavala. “La Palma” by Mariachi Mexico Jalisco became her song, and Zavala would regularly duet with her during festivals.

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Under Zavala’s watch, lessons transcended instruments. He carved a space for girls interested in performing in the male-dominated field. He founded the program’s “crown jewel,” an all-girls group known as Mariachi Rosas del Tepeyac, Oliver Zavala said.

“We’ve had our part in upholding this tradition and very few people know, but Gabriel Zavala was important to empowering young women, letting them know they have a place in this history and the genre,” Pérez, a performer herself, said. “In mariachi, they learn independence, assertiveness, the discipline of music, which is intellectually rigorous.”

Gabriel B. Zavala stands next to his son Oliver Zavala
Gabriel B. Zavala stands next to his son Oliver Zavala at Boysen Park in Anaheim in 1989.
(Courtesy of Oliver Zavala)

In the last few years, Zavala’s academy struggled to stay afloat. The money earned — less than $1,000 — went toward the school and its $2,000 rent. He accommodated families who couldn’t afford to pay tuition in full through payment plans. He even let some students learn and take home instruments for free. Sometimes students stopped showing up to class and those instruments would be lost.

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“Stuff like that made me angry, but my dad would say, ‘No, maybe somebody is playing it,’” his daughter Laura said.

Eventually, the pandemic and Zavala’s death forced the academy’s temporary closure.

One day, Oliver Zavala plans to reopen the school for his father’s memory. These days, he reminisces on students his father helped get into the Orange County School of the Arts, where other notable musicians got their start, or those who went on to perform in professional groups.

“We have no intention of stopping,” he said.

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Gabriel Zavala is survived by his wife, Oralia Luna Zavala, and his three children, Gabriel L. Zavala, Laura Zavala Perez and Oliver Zavala.


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