Nati Cano and his Camperos at La Fonda Restaurant

Special To The San Fernando Valley Sun/El Sol

 “¿Que va a pasar cuando El Chief se nos vaya?”

During his last few years, conversations within the ranks of Mariachi Los Camperos were often about our leader’s diminishing health and over concerns for the future of the group. We endearingly called him “Chief,” others called him “Señor Cano,” but most of the world knew him simply as “Nati.”  Jose Natividad “Nati” Cano was an ambitious young musician who left his native Jalisco and found his way to Los Angeles, the city that would become his permanent home and nurture his vision for the music, heritage and culture he loved.

On Friday, October 3, 2014, fifty-three years after forming the group that would carry his name, Nati Cano passed to a better life, leaving behind a legacy of artistry, entrepreneurship and advocacy that made him arguably the most important figure in the popularization of mariachi music in the United States and made his Mariachi Los Camperos de Nati Cano one of the most celebrated mariachi ensembles in the world. 

Mariachi music in the United States has gradually risen in popularity over the last few decades. Mexican and non-Mexican aficionados alike have embraced mariachi and have shared their appreciation for the music. Countless youth, amateur, and professional mariachis exist throughout the country, especially in major urban centers such as Los Angeles, San Antonio, and Tucson. With the advent of mariachi conferences in the late 1970s and early 1980s, mariachi music has grown in appeal with the younger, American-born generations. Today it is studied in formal institutions across the United States, from K-12 to the university level. In 2012, UNESCO even recognized mariachi music as an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, reaffirming its place in the world stage.

Nati Cano and his Mariachi Los Camperos were pioneers in this movement and were a primary force behind mariachi’s popularization in the United States. Dating back to 1961, Mariachi Los Camperos de Nati Cano became the house mariachi at “El Million Dollar Theater” in Los Angeles where they accompanied numerous Mexican icons such as Jose Alfredo Jimenez, Lola Beltran, and Javier Solis. Not long after, Nati and his group were performing for large audiences from Catalina Island to Las Vegas — constantly innovating within the music while remaining true to the traditional form. In 1968, Nati opened the widely popular, “La Fonda de Los Camperos,” the first dinner-mariachi show restaurant of its kind.

Mariachi Los Camperos’ rise to fame coincided with the social tensions of the 1960s, a time when cultural stereotypes and racism posed as a significant obstacle for Nati and his group. He had to fight against the social currents that were often unwelcoming to the Mexican immigrant. In an interview with Daniel Sheehy, director and curator of Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, Nati recalled the signs hanging from the cantina windows that read, “Women, men in uniform, beggars, street vendors, mariachis, and dogs NOT ALLOWED.” Undeterred, Nati used the racial tensions he witnessed in society as a motivator in his own quest for widespread acceptance of mariachi as an art. The obstacles Nati would face on this journey also came by way of an unexpected source: the mariachi community itself. 

I joined Mariachi Los Camperos in 1997 and had the opportunity to spend many hours in private conversation with Nati. “Sergio,” he said to me once, “acepto ser controversial si es que ayuda levantar el mariachi a otro nivel.” Nati’s vision for Camperos made him an outlier. He detested the complacency and blasé attitudes in the mariachi community that were accepted as normal behavior for musicians.

He outwardly expressed his contempt for colleagues who appeared intoxicated in public or who conducted themselves in other shameful ways. Nati firmly believed that his musicians should carry themselves with pride, dignity, and respect.  They should arrive at performances on time (if not early), be well-rehearsed, well-groomed and always wear clean suits. Nati was fiercely committed to breaking down and challenging the negative stereotypes associated with the mariachi sub-culture. For him, achieving this meant having absolute control and ruling with an iron fist.

Nati earned a reputation among mariachi musicians of being excessively strict and ruthlessly demanding. He insisted on discipline, commitment and obedience, and he had little patience for errors or insubordination. In his insatiable quest for perfection, Nati constantly pushed us to be better and work harder, often stomping his feet on stage in a tantrum-like frustration when something didn’t look or sound the way he wanted.

Nati’s eyes and ears were attuned to every aspect of the ensemble, and even our infrequent off-stage indiscretions rarely ever went undiscovered by him. On a wall at La Fonda hung an eerie, ghost-like painting of a guelaquetza woman with mysteriously dark eyes that gazed down at us on stage while we performed.  We would joke that Nati stood behind her to keep a watchful eye on us. If someone played around on stage we would warn them, “Aguas con la mona!” which meant “watch out for the woman,” a playful reminder that Nati was looking. We sometimes feared him yet we also desperately wanted to please him.

Nati faced opposition from musicians who did not share his vision and who did not accept the decisions he made. To Nati, you were either with him or against him and that belief was often applied to his relationships with people outside his business and his group. He was perceived as stubborn, prideful and irrational —  attributes that drove musicians from his group and other people out of his life completely.  Many of his close relationships would come and go in temporary phases. As quickly as some rose to high regard in his esteem, reaping the rewards of his attention, they just as abruptly might descend into obscurity with him.

Nati could be opaque, and many times the subject of his shifting attentions would have no knowledge of why they had fallen in or out of his favor. “No se preocupen cuando les reclame o los regañe, preocúpense cuando lo deje de hacer,” he would say. Nati was suspicious of people’s motives and he was always en garde to protect himself from being used. He was a generous man, but quick to rescind his generosity if he felt someone was taking advantage of him — which, true or not, he frequently believed.

 The motives behind some of Nati’s decisions were not always immediately apparent to us, and we often had difficulty understanding why he did what he did in those moments, and where it all would take us. However, in many of those instances, the paths on which we traveled with his decisions often ended up revealing how truly brilliant and masterful a leader and friend he could be.

One sunny morning a number of years ago, during the Encuentro Internacional del Mariachi y La Charrería in Guadalajara, hundreds of mariachis from various parts of the world who had traveled to Mexico for the event gathered in the plaza in front of El Expriatorio for a photo shoot. All the groups had a long day of performances ahead so the hosting organization arranged for each musician to have a boxed breakfast when they arrived. Upon witnessing the musicians uncomfortably fumbling with their food on the plaza, sitting on curbs and steps, laying their jackets and instruments on the ground next to overflowing trash cans, Nati instructed us to keep our jackets on and he prohibited us from having the breakfast.

Our colleagues noticed our reticent behavior and teased us, saying our boss was ridiculous and extreme for not allowing us to eat. We were hungry, embarrassed, and very upset with Nati for denying us this meal and exposing us to such ridicule. After the photo shoot, we boarded our bus and rode back to the Hotel de Mendoza where Nati was a guest. When we arrived, he ordered us off the bus and inside the hotel. To our surprise we were greeted with hot coffee,  pan dulce, and even a bottle of tequila by waiters who guided us to a 12-person table in the hotel’s luxurious dining room.  “Bienvenidos Camperos, los estamos esperando.” Unbeknownst to us, in the moments of our frustration with Nati, he had phoned the hotel and arranged this formal meal for us. “Esto es ser Campero. Se lo merecen porque se lo han ganado.”  Like Knights of the Round Table, we were treated to a fine breakfast as Nati’s Camperos.

Before Nati could prove to the world that the mariachi tradition was deserving of respect, he had to convince us of it.  It wasn’t enough for us to simply represent something different, we had to BE different. His high expectations and tough love for us on stage and off were not arbitrary.  They were part of a grander vision to inspire us, our audiences, and our students to LIVE his standard of what a mariachi could and should be. That life comes with sacrifice. Nati lived it, and we lived it with him. He showed us the honor of being a mariachi and the responsibility that comes with being a Campero.

By his example we carried ourselves forward with the pride, dignity, and the respect he expected of us. “Orgullo, dignidad, y respeto” – Nati’s motto for his music.

At the root of Nati’s musical genius was his emphasis on tradition, his impeccable taste, and his noble simplicity. For Nati, it was not how fast or how many notes you played, it was how well you played them. It was not about flaunting technical prowess or indulging in overly elaborate arrangements, it was about touching the souls of people through heartfelt performances. Nati often said, “Yo no toco para mí, yo toco para la gente.”

He historically selected some of the most revered instrumentalists and vocalists in the industry to join Los Camperos — musicians he felt were most capable of achieving his aesthetic and artistic vision. His attention to detail was unparalleled and he was a master at arranging tunes that brought out the best of his musicians. He believed that musical sophistication and innovation should not come at the expense of tradition and good taste. He found inspiration in yesteryear and wanted the essence of that unmistakable Camperos sound to be rooted in Mexican tradition. In describing the Los Camperos style he simply said, “energía, pasión, y corazón.” 

Beyond “Chief” was Nati, the private man, who separated his business life from his personal life.

There were very few occasions when these two lives converged, and I can think of only a few instances when we were invited to his home. However, he loved to talk about his daughters, Alejandra and Natalia, and would take out their photos from his wallet to show to us with immense pride. “Son mi vida,” he used to say. There was also Nati the friend, who enjoyed spending time just hanging out with his guys. He would comment on how he liked our camaraderie and enjoyed watching us interact “off-the-clock” as friends, like playful school kids.

His philosophy on life was often told through stories and metaphors over a glass of wine. He had a great sense of humor and always joked around, speaking in playful double entendres, often causing his listeners to blush. “Me gusta tu guayavera, Sergio. ¿Donde me puedo comprar una?” After thanking him for the compliment, I told him where I purchased my clothes and he continued, “¿Y también hacen para hombres?” As a friend he felt comfortable enough to ask if he could take the first sip of your morning coffee or borrow your spoon to eat from your plate. Los Camperos was his life and he genuinely enjoyed his time with us and demonstrated that through his generosity. Nati preferred investing his money on memorable experiences over material possessions.

In March of 2012, Camperos were preparing for a concert in Santa Barbara when Nati, after months of silence during his recovery from colon surgery, asked to meet with us in private at a hotel room in Goleta. He said he simply wanted to see us and say “hello” but when we arrived it became clear he had a very different intention. As we entered the room we found Nati sitting in the corner with dozens of plaques, recognitions and awards scattered throughout the room. He said they were all accolades that we earned with him and he wanted to give them to us. It was clear he was there to say goodbye. He had been given six months to live.

“Hasta con La Calaca es usted terco!” we joked with him two years later. He was a proud man and did not want anyone’s pity; he never lost his zest for life because he found life on stage with his Camperos. “Usted se quiere morir en el escenario” we would say to him, in objection to his insistence on continuing to work. Despite his dire illness he carried on, touring with us until the very end. Last spring we traveled by air and land from Illinois, to Wisconsin, to Arkansas, to Dallas, and Nati rode next to me much of the way as I drove the cargo van loaded with our luggage and instruments. He spoke about his life, his legacy, and about the contributions he hoped to leave for future mariachi musicians. On May 5, 2014 we performed in Irving, Texas and Nati was in typical form — energetic, funny, and charismatic. The audience would never have known he was in his final days. That was the last time Nati took the stage with us. 

Months later we attended the Encuentro de Mariachi y La Charreria in Guadalajara and he had the opportunity to spend time with his guys. On August 28th, as he had done many times before, Nati invited the guys to one of his favorite restaurants, El Abajeno in the city of Tlaquepaque. After an afternoon of food, drinks, and live music, Nati received the bill and said “El dinero que pague me vale. Lo que yo me voy a llevar son estos recuerdos. Esto es lo que yo quería y ojala que nunca se acabe esta convivencia.” That was the final occasion Nati would have with his Camperos. 

Nati Cano’s goal in life was to elevate mariachi music to an art form respected by worldwide audiences. A romantic and an idealist, Nati’s dream was to conquer the concert halls and performing art centers throughout the United States and beyond. In his relentless crusade, he strove for musical excellence and faithfully committed himself to the preservation of Mexican cultural traditions. His vision for mariachi music at times seemed irrational and unattainable, especially by his musicians who had to sacrifice much and endure his sometimes military-like commands. Like the soldier who scorns a sergeant’s unending orders yet desperately needs him in time of battle, we developed a love-hate relationship with Nati. He was our school and we appreciated him, we respected him, and above all else, we believed and continue to believe in his vision. 

Nati leaves behind a legacy of artistry. From Palacio Bellas Artes to Carnegie Hall, Mariachi Los Camperos toured throughout North America and beyond, taking mariachi music to new audiences and opening doors for other ensembles to do the same. The various recordings by Los Camperos have been staples within the canon of regional Mexican music, and three of the productions were recorded in the audio halls of the Smithsonian Institution. Nati welcomed women into mariachi, a tradition that was historically reserved only for men. Nati also leaves a large body of work for mariachi and symphony orchestra, an artistic collaboration that was unheard of not too long ago.  From his collaboration with Linda Ronstadt on her “Canciones de Mi Padre” album to his holiday production of “Fiesta Navidad,” Nati’s artistic contribution to mariachi music is immeasurable.

He leaves behind a legacy of entrepreneurship. In a finicky music industry that ties its support of music ensembles to a life span often based solely on popular commercial success, he guided his organization for over five decades. La Fonda was a landmark in Los Angeles for nearly 40 of those years, and served as a model for other dinner-theater restaurants that emerged across the country.  It was the school and the shrine to countless professional mariachi musicians who would come for the pleasure and education of performing with and listening to Mariachi Los Camperos.

And, he leaves behind a legacy of advocacy. His commitment to education and to the preservation of mariachi music among newer generations has impacted thousands of young students throughout the United States. His participation in mariachi conferences, especially the Tucson International Mariachi Conference, has directly influenced the thousands of students who have performed with and learned from Camperos at those events. As a lecturer at the prestigious UCLA Department of Ethnomusicology and as founder of the nationally recognized arts-in-education program, the City of San Fernando Mariachi Master Apprentice Program, Nati showed his profound dedication to children and his art.

 “El camino hacia la perfección siempre está en construcción,” he always used to say. “¿Hacerme para atrás? Ni para agarrar impulso.” His commitment to his ideals were unwavering and he was religiously loyal to his beliefs. He leaves us never having strayed from that course on which he set out over five decades ago.  Even with so many forces working against him he didn’t break or succumb to the prevailing wind.  He WAS the tide of our culture and whether it’s known to all of today’s mariachis and aficionados or not, the sharp, polished, professional, proud, dignified presence of their ensembles is a result of the current he created.

Now we say farewell to Nati in the most fitting of ways: with the very same words he used at the conclusion of our performances, “Nunca decimos adiós si no “hasta la vista”. . .  

Hasta la vista Chief.

Amy Grossman contributed to this story.  Alonso is an educator, enthnomusicologist, and harpist for Mariachi Los Camperos de Nati Cano.