Mary Alfaro Velasco
June 24, 2020

Mary Alfaro Velasco is a guitarist, singer, and music educator from San Fernando, California. She performs diverse musical styles of the Americas and enjoys reinterpreting classic boleros, rancheras, folk songs, and other song forms to celebrate the depths of female, queer and Latinx identity. Mary is currently an ACTA apprentice under the guidance of mentor artist in requinto romántico José “Pepe” Carlos Gonzalez. She is also an ACTA Arts in Corrections artist resident at Ironwood State Prison in Blythe teaching Folk, Roots, and Popular Music of the Americas with co-teacher Lorenzo Martínez.

Mary received her B.A. in music and M.A. in Latin American Studies from UCLA and has worked on projects to promote and preserve Latinx musical traditions at Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, the Library of Congress Archive of Folk Culture, and LA Plaza de Cultura y Artes. She also teaches two mariachi ensembles with the Santa Monica-Malibu School District and Santa Monica Youth Orchestra. As an interviewer with the UCLA Center for Oral History, she is currently working on an initiative to preserve the stories of mariachi musicians in Los Angeles.

This Q+A in conversation with ACTA’s Media Director Jennifer Joy Jameson is part of ACTA’s ongoing Queering California Traditions series, which features voices from queer traditional artists across the state.

Tell us about you, where you are, and your pathway to playing the requinto guitar and performing trío romántico music? What is trío romántico?

I am a musician, music educator, and I also work on other music-related projects in museum or archive settings. I am passionate about Latin American music and about traditional music in generaI. I grew up in predominantly Mexican neighborhoods in Los Angeles and Brownsville, Texas.  My parents both came to the US from Mexico in their teens and when I was a kid, we traveled to Mexico frequently to visit family. I remember seeing mariachis and trío romántico groups every now and then at family and church events or at festivals, but it wasn’t until my early college years that I became very interested in ranchera and bolero music. One day I came across Linda Ronstadt’s album Canciones de Mi Padre and I completely fell in love with sones, huapangos, rancheras, and guitar.

I had purchased a Los Panchos CD around the same time and fell in love with bolero music as well. I took classical guitar lessons at Los Angeles Valley College and learned to play mariachi guitar during my involvement with the city of San Fernando’s Mariachi Master Apprentice Program. I continued my classical guitar and mariachi studies as an undergrad at UCLA. I played in various mariachi groups in Los Angeles and Washington DC after my undergrad years and while in graduate school.

In 2015 I began playing in a trío romántico, first as a vocalist and occasional guitarist. Trío romántico music developed in Mexico, Cuba, and Puerto Rico and gained popularity throughout Latin America in the late 1940s and 1950s. There are typically three musicians singing romantic songs in harmony and playing guitars. Central to the genre are boleros, songs with blissful, tortured and romantic elements. Boleros originated in Cuba and spread to other Latin American countries. Trío romántico groups can also play rancheras and regional styles such as Oaxacan waltzes. The melodies are mostly played by the requinto romántico and are often complex and virtuosic. The other guitarist(s) provide the bass, rhythm, and harmony. The group can also include a maraca player or other hand percussion instruments.

The blissful nature of this music in combination with the incredible musicality and complexity of the melodies, chord progressions, harmonies and poetry make for incredible art. All of these elements made me fall in love with the bolero and trío romántico tradition.

I have been a guitarist and principal singer in the group Voz Bohemia since 2017, and prior to the pandemic we performed at restaurants and bars during the week and occasionally on weekends at private events throughout Los Angeles. In 2018 my bandmate Jesús Martínez and I received the ACTA apprenticeship in order for him to teach me to play the requinto romántico, a soprano guitar used to play melodies in trío romántico ensembles and sometimes in ranchera duets or trios. Currently, Pepe Carlos from LA-based band La Santa Cecilia is my master teacher on the requinto through this year’s round of ACTA apprenticeships

You’ve spoken about your work as “queering the trío romántico.” What does that mean to you?

I believe that all forms of art should reflect the diverse experiences of people, including gender identities and sexual orientations. As an active musician in a trío romántico, I also think that the ensemble’s repertoire and style should reflect the experiences and personality of each member and that our music should be inclusive to diverse audience members. I personally identify as a lesbian and have life experiences, perspectives, and have experienced challenges different from those of my bandmates, so I think the music should reflect that from time to time.

In order for our vibe to include the lesbian experience we perform songs that I sing from the perspective of a woman singing to another woman. If the rhyme scheme works it can be as easy as switching a gender pronoun or the last letter of a gendered word from “o” to “a.” 

For example, the typical lyrics to the chorus of the ranchera song “Vámonos” are as follows: 

Vámonos, donde nadie nos juzgue,

Donde nadie nos diga que hacemos mal.

Vámonos, alejados del mundo,

Donde no haya justicia, ni leyes, ni nada, nomás nuestro amor.


Lets go, where no one will judge us,

Where no one will tell us that we are doing something wrong.

Let’s go, far from the world,

Where there is no justice, no laws, nothing, just our love.

The song takes a whole other layer of meaning when the gendered word “alejados” is changed to “alejadas.” It makes the song specifically about two women lovers.

Are there elements of trío romántico music that make fertile ground for playing with queer experience and identities? Are there elements of the tradition that stifle that?

A good amount of bolero songs and rancheras are about a man singing to a woman, so like I mentioned above, we can play with the gendered words, change some letters and voilá, the song is instantly queer. Historically, there haven’t been well-known trío romántico groups with female members or with a woman instrumentalist in the group, so there is a lot freedom or room to play with in terms of style, repertoire, attire, etc. 

There have been collaborations between women singers and trío romántico groups, such as Eydie Gormé and Los Panchos. She wasn’t necessarily a member of the group but one can argue that their rendition of Sabor a mi is one of the most beloved and well-known bolero recordings.

I think the trío romántico tradition can only benefit from more inclusivity rather than limiting it to only cisgender male voices.

In certain many parts of Latin America and in Latinx culture there is pressure for women to adhere to a certain aesthetic in order to be seen as professional or taken seriously. That can include wearing form fitting clothing, a certain make-up style and/or heels. I am all about women presenting themselves how they would like. Personally, I don’t femme it up in order to gain wider appeal or to be more palatable to mainstream audiences. I prefer to wear something similar to my bandmates and as a result our look happens to match what traditional trios looked like. In my trio Voz Bohemia we wear pants and matching or similar shirts. Sometimes we wear suits with bowties or matching guayaberas. We make it our own.

Mary with her bandmates from Voz Bohemia. Photo: Jenny Graham.


As a gay girl growing up in a Mexican and Mexican American environment I always had to gauge whether or not I felt comfortable or safe being my true authentic self around certain groups of people.

While I do feel a sense of freedom playing with how I appear in trío romántico groups, a lot of our audience members are of an older generation. Sometimes I get the sense that some audience members will do a double-take or not necessarily approve of my personal interpretation of a song. In a sense, a lot of us queer folks have to come out to new acquaintances our whole lives. Sometimes everything is OK, and sometimes people don’t react positively. While I accept this, the guessing can sometimes be tiring. I am optimistic, however, that as time progresses more and more people will be accepting and will embrace queer voices in Latin American music.

As a gay Latina woman, what other musicians, artists, writers, or community leaders have informed your path? How do you hope to influence others?

I’ve been inspired by many women and bands for being such ground-breaking composers, musicians, ensembles, and singers in different ways: María Grever, Mary Lou Williams, Linda Ronstadt, Las Hermanas Padilla, Chavela Vargas, Trio Ellas, Kumbia Queers, Tegan and Sara, Brandi Carlile.

I am thankful to the LGBTQ and feminist leaders and writers who have paved the way for women, queer folks, and youth: Jeanne Cordova, Gloria Anzaldúa, Gloria Steinem, among so many others. I hope to contribute to LGBTQ visibility in the Mexican/Latin American music scene, to help normalize our experience within our predominantly heteronormative spaces.

It’s also my hope that if a little tomboy in the audience sees a girl playing guitar or requinto she can see that it’s something she can do too, and that she can do it presenting herself in a way that reflects her truth.

What does a future-forward practice of “tradition” look like to you? 

Artists that participate in a traditional practice not only have love for that tradition but also respect for the art form and for those that came before us and did their work to keep the tradition alive. I think however, that some folks can suppress elements of change that need to happen.

When it comes to certain things, we as artists, audience members and as humans in general need to evolve and not only learn tolerance for other perspectives but also acceptance and learn how to be allies for marginalized folks or groups that have been historically underrepresented.

In my particular practice, I hope to see more women involved in trío romántico groups, more women playing lead guitar and contributing to the evolution of the tradition. I also hope to see more inclusion of queer perspectives in bolero and ranchera music. 

Did anyone share something that was powerful for you in finding your place in culture and community as a young woman? What would you say to a younger version of yourself as you find your place in culture and community?

Chavela Vargas once said

Con tu verdad sales adelante. Cuesta mucho, sufres mucho, pero sales adelante.”

It roughly translates to “With your truth you get ahead. It costs a lot, you suffer a lot, but you come out ahead.” I would tell my younger self to often think about those words of wisdom. I have found Chavela Vargas’ statement to be very true in my personal experience. I have experienced judgement and prejudice along my journey but I couldn’t be happier doing what I am doing with music and living my truth.

Voz Bohemia performance at LA Plaza de Cultura y Artes in Los Angeles, October 19, 2019. We played a 45-minute set of boleros and rancheras for a public screening of the documentary film “Chavela.”  We performed various songs that Chavela Vargas sang.

What gives you pride about being a gay Mexican American woman?

We are in good company. Some of Latin America’s most brilliant art has been produced by queer (or presumably queer) icons: Frida Kahlo, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, Juan Gabriel, Chavela Vargas, among others. Also, some of our indigenous ancestors belonged to communities that had diverse gender identities and practices. While queer folk in Latin America and around the world have a long way to go towards gaining full equality and protection, we are a resilient bunch and I am optimistic that things will improve.

How’re you finding peace amidst the pandemic? What is feeding you in this challenging moment?

Having more time to reflect on everything has been helpful. Living through a pandemic really makes one put things in to perspective, to think about what’s most important for one’s happiness, health, family, goals, etc. 

Having more time to just play music for the sake of playing and trying new techniques and songs has been a joy.

In the fall I purchased an electric guitar and amp for the first time but it wasn’t until the stay-at-home orders went into effect that I found time to really dive in and play with it. It has been incredibly fun playing this new instrument. And finally, like a lot of folks these days, I’ve been cooking a lot more. I don’t consider myself talented in the kitchen but it’s been fun to learn some new skills and recipes.

Tell us what you’re working on now, and what you have coming up!

I have been practicing more requinto recently and learning new songs and techniques under the guidance of Pepe Carlos. I am still working with my previous requinto instructor Jesús Martínez, who along with being a great requintista is also a skilled audio engineer and talented producer. He and I have been working on arrangements of bolero covers and other song forms. He is also helping me realize my dream of recording a lesbian bolero album, a collection of classic boleros and other folk songs, some that will be re-imagined in order to tell a story of gay girl love and loss.

What does solidarity look like to you, across queer and Black communities?

While each community has faced unique challenges, demonstrating solidarity can include recognizing the connections between each community’s struggle for civil rights. As many folks know, the LGBTQ liberation movement in the US began as a series of protests against police brutality. Important leaders at the forefront were also members of the Black and/or Trans community. Members of the LGBTQ community are gaining rights to this day because of the groundbreaking work of figures of the civil rights movement. 

Solidarity to me means honoring that legacy and doing what one can to support others in their quest to be treated as equals with dignity, whether it be protesting in person, supporting causes financially, having conversations with friends and family, or calling out racist/homophobic/sexist comments and microaggressions. It’s great to see so many folks from the LGBTQ community supporting the Black Lives Matter movement. I pray that it continues, that more join and support the struggle, and that folks everywhere take Audre Lorde’s words to heart:

“I am not free while any woman is unfree, even when her shackles are very different from my own. And I am not free as long as one person of colour remains chained.”

Check out one of Mary’s latest tracks: Para Qué Sufrir

This is a cover of a Natalia Lafourcade song from the album Hasta la Raíz reimagined as a bolero. Original music and lyrics by Natalia Lafourcade and José Manuel Torreblanca.

Original requinto arrangement and instrumental: Jesús Martínez
Guitar and vocals: Mary Alfaro Velasco
Double bass: Ray Gudiño
Maracas, congas, bongó: Ismael Pineda

Instrumentals recorded live at Knob World Studios, Echo Park, CA.
Vocal, congas and bongó recorded at Decibel Studios, Boyle Heights, CA.


Queering California Traditions

Explore more insights and reflections from some of California’s many Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans, and Queer traditional artists in ACTA's Pride series.

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