Nati Cano

There is no dispute, Natividad “Nati” Cano influenced American culture.

It is because of his work that mariachi music is now part of the American fabric and part of U.S. popular culture where it’s commonplace for mariachi music and celebrations to go hand in hand.  

 He was driven by his great love, passion and demand for respect that led to elevating mariachi music to center stage in respected venues throughout the U.S. as well as Mexico. 

Cano, the founder of Los Camperos de Nati Cano, considered the most accomplished and influential mariachi ensemble in the United States, died Friday, Oct. 3. He was 81.

When he came to the United States, Cano had a very clear vision for promoting  the music to a higher standard with a firm belief in the need for establishing a formal discipline for his highly  accomplished  musicians, who were impeccably dressed in the finest mariachi trajes and to stand and play proudly. 

“It was his philosphy that no matter how accomplished they were, that they could go even further,” said folklorista Javier Verdin, a co-founder of Ballet Folklorico Ollin.  

“Cano was the first to really embrace and promote the female mariachi here, ” said Verdin.  ” He welcomed a female mariachi  into Los Camperos and others would follow, playing with him at La Fonda. He brought on  Monica Treviño from Tuscon, Ariz., who he referred to as a ‘mariachera ‘. She played with him for many years.” 

Verdin’s said his dance company have wonderful memories performing with the Camperos.  “Nati  was a visionary, but he also learned from those he worked with and he understood that we as dancers needed quality musicians so that we could do our work.”

Cano was affectionately called “El Chief” by those he mentored and worked with.

Jesus “Chuy” Guzman, a Los Camperos member since 1988, said Cano was also more than just his boss.

“He was my mentor, my best friend. I considered him my father,” Guzman said. “We walked together, and he taught me and many others so much. Mr. Cano was ‘The Chief.’”

Guzman went on to describe Cano’s death as “this great loss,” not just for him “but for everybody.”

“He’s the best person I’ve known in my life,” Guzman said. “He taught us respect and dignity for what one does. He respected values. He left a great school, a great institution such as is Mariachi Los Camperos, and the whole world views him with respect.”

A Talented Musician

Cano was born in 1933, in the small village of Ahuisculco in the western Mexican state of Jalisco, into a family of day laborers who played mariachi music in their free time.

His father Sotero began teaching Cano how to play the  vihuela  when he was 6 years old. Two years later, Cano enrolled at the Academia de Musica in Guadalajara to study the violin. He left after six years, against the wishes of his instructor Ignacio Camerena, to join his father and help support his family by playing in local cantinas and cafes.

In 1950, Cano persuaded his father to let him travel to the border town of Mexicali to join the Mariachi Chapala. Though he was the youngest musician in the group by at least 10 years, he soon became its musical arranger.

Cano moved to Los Angeles in 1960, joining Mariachi Aguila, the house ensemble at the Million Dollar Theatre. Upon the death of the group’s director Jose Frias, Cano became the new leader and renamed the group Los Camperos.

He also founded La Fonda restaurant on Wilshire Boulevard, in part to give Los Camperos a venue to play.

Among his long list of accomplishments, Cano is noted for collaborating with singer Linda Ronstadt in the production of the 1987 album “Canciones de Mi Padre,” and developed touring shows including “Fiesta Navidad” and “Mariachi Folklor Pasion Mexicana.”  Under his direction, Los Camperos won a Grammy Award in 2004 for Best Children’s Album, “Celebration: A tribute to Ella Jenkins.” and a 2008 Grammy for Best Regional Mexican Album: “Amor, Dolor, y Lagrimas.” 

Cano was very connected to the Northeast San Fernando Valley.  While he lived in Fillmore, he was very involved in the on-the ground work with musicians  in the valley, where members of his group live and work.  Verdin, with the city of San Fernando cultural affairs director Virginia Didiker approached Cano to start a partnership with the award winning Camperos and local schools.  Together they  began the San Fernando-based Mariachi Apprentice Program that developed new generations of young musicians.

Members of Los Camperos teach and perform with middle school and high school students from the Northeast San Fernando Valley, performing under the name Mariachi Tesoro de San Fernando.

This group of well trained talented young Mariachi musicians has been honored at the White House, and played there for first lady Michelle Obama and at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.

“So many musicians and dancers got their start from working with Nati and received national recognition because of his hand up,” said Verdin. 

“No one can dispute that mariachi music is widely popular in the United States today and it has been handed down to our young people with much dignity, because of the work of Nati Cano,” Verdin said.

A Fair Boss

“Nati was fair with everybody,” said Pablo Lopez, 80, one of the eight original members of Mariachi Los Camperos, who first met Cano in the late 1950s.

At the time, Lopez played in a Mariachi Popular de Jalisco and Cano played in Mariachi Chapala. Both groups were well known in the mariachi circuits of Mexicali, Baja California, Mexico. Later on, Cano and Lopez both crossed the border and landed in Los Angeles.

“He played at a restaurant/cantina called ‘Granada’ on Broadway, close to Chinatown,” remembered Lopez, whose group played at another restaurant.

In the early 1960s, Cano decided to start his own group and was looking for musicians.

“People joined and others left the group, there was a lot of movement,” said Lopez.

Lopez joined right away when Cano asked him, and played violin.They would play together for the next 40 years, until Lopez retired.

“He was a great boss,” Lopez said. “We played throughout California, San Francisco, Bakersfield…Las Vegas, we often played there.” 

We were in the good and the bad,” he said, recalling the struggles to establish their name and gain recognition. “But we supported him in his decisions,” he added, noting that “there was always work.”

He said they played with just about everybody, including the famed actress Maria Felix at the Million Dollar Theatre in Downtown Los Angeles. It was a memorable night because Felix was not one who liked to sing.

And despite all the accolades and the fame, “it never got to his head,” Lopez said of Cano. “We had a lot of good times, nothing bad; we always got along well.”

He remembered it was Cano who was by his side two years ago, when Lopez lost his wife. Mariachi Los Camperos even played in the funeral mass.

“He treated me really well. I can’t complain.”

Getting Respect For The Mariachi

During the 50-plus years Cano headed Mariachi Los Camperos, he also changed the image of the mariachi.

“We had the stereotype of the mariachi who only plays at bars and cantinas, playing rancheras for drunks. He never agreed with that,” Guzman said. “He raised the profile of the mariachi, it was Nati who got those doors open to place mariachis in the big concert halls of the United States and Mexico.”

Cano left an important legacy, Guzman said. Now Guzman will continue that legacy as the handpicked director of the Mariachi Los Camperos.

“He chose me. He already felt the end was near and we had a meeting. He told me, ‘I don’t want to leave you a problem,’ and we did everything legal,” Guzman said.

Cano was diagnosed with colon cancer in 2008, when doctors gave him only two to six months to live. He outlived their medical prediction and lived six more years. 

A positive and strong person until the end, he kept appearing with Los Camperos until the very end. He no longer played with them, but still introduced them and traveled with them, even as recently as this year when they performed in Guadalajara, Mexico.

“His love for Los Camperos and his two daughters, Natalia and Alejandra, was what kept him alive,” Guzman said.

The funeral service for Cano is private.  A public memorial however is pending.