When I’m asked who taught me how to play the mariachi harp, my answer always pays homage to a bass line I keep in my left hand and to two of the finest guitarron players to have ever graced the mariachi stage — Jose Maria “Chema” Arellano and Juan Jimenez.
On Friday, Feb. 12, my dearest Juan joined Chema en el cielo and the mariachi world mourns the loss of an icon at age 58.
Most of my professional career was literally at Juan’s side in the armonia (harmony) section of Mariachi Los Camperos de Nati Cano. From Mexico City to Vancouver, from Honolulu to Madrid, I had the pleasure of being Juan’s rhythmic wingman across North America and beyond.
Juan was an unparalleled virtuoso on the guitarron, and riding “bass shotgun” for 17 years at his side was the masterclass of a lifetime for me. There were countless concerts and recordings on which we performed together, and just as important were the non-musical memories we shared.
Any Campero can tell you about “the show within the show.” It’s imbued into our public stage performances, but is largely unseen by the audience. It transcends the stricture of a setlist — it is spontaneous and improvised. This “show” takes place among the musicians in the form of camaraderie, togetherness, and unrelenting banter.
With his distinguished elder statesman poker face projecting from the background, no aficionado would ever imagine that Juan was often at the center of the antics. For example, when his microphone stand would begin to droop in the middle of a song, he would jokingly ask for my help to reposition it, “Checo, se me cae, agárramela!”
With his mischievously proud grin, Juan would relish in the victory of a successfully jabbed double entendre, and we loved him for that. Camperos would endearingly call him“panzón” or “viejito” or “grandpa”.
Ironically, Juan’s playful demeanor and childlike smile was anything but old. Kind, warm, friendly, approachable, unassuming, and freakishly humble, Juan exemplified what it is to be a Campero — orgullo, dignidad, y respeto. For me, it was less important to model myself after Juan “the musician” than it was to model myself after Juan “the human being.” Beyond the music, his persona, energy, and spirit were foundational to this institution.
At his core Juan was a family man. With his lovely wife Maria and their beautiful children — Ruth, Juan, Laura and Cesar — he always kept his door open, not only for members of Camperos but for all of our families as well. Rehearsals, casual hangouts, Christmas parties, and even Grammy Awards celebrations were held at the Jimenez home. If the Jimenez’s weren’t offering you coffee and donuts, it was because they were offering you tequila and posole.
I will miss Juan’s sincerity, genuineness, willingness to help, and confidence to ask for help. I will miss his wit, his charm, and his Ensenada-is-the-center-of-the-universe comments. I will miss him singing “El Cobarde,” and his insatiable love of pastries.
I will especially miss his always hilarious saying, “Esta madre no tiene ciencia” (this thing is easy peasy) after Camperos had struggled for hours learning one of Chuy’s insanely challenging arrangements.
I extend my most heartfelt condolences to Familia Jimenez, Chuy and the Guzman family, and the entire mariachi family throughout the world. I recently wrote an article called “Familia in the Time of COVID-19” that explored the idea of family as a manifestation in the mariachi community that serves as a source of strength, resilience, and solace during times of uncertainty and sorrow.
I believe all of us who knew and loved Juan can draw on this notion of communal familismo as we try to find meaning behind this virus and the many lives that it has taken.
Sergio “Checo” Alonso is an ethnomusicologist, a master of the Mexican folk harp, a member of Los Camperos, an instructor for MMAP and the music teacher at San Fernando High School.
Juan Jimenez, considered one of the finest guitarron players and an esteemed member of Mariachi Los Camperos de Nati Cano, has passed away due to the coronavirus. He was 58and his is unexpected death and the seriousness of this pandemic has hit many students in the Northeast San Fernando Valley community very close to home. Jimenez was known and appreciated for his work over the last 14 years as a Master instructor for the Mariachi Master Apprentice Program (MMAP) based at San Fernando Middle School. He taught scores of young students the art, discipline, musicianship, culture and pride in becoming a Mariachi.
Through the mission of this program, the training and professional example provided by Jimenez and other MMAP instructors have encouraged scores of students to forge a pathway to college toward many fields of study, including music related careers.
Jimenez who enjoyed a long and purposeful career, traveled the world and elevated the art form. Jimenez both accompanied and recorded with numerous Mexican recording artists, including Linda Ronstadt, Vikki Carr, Pepe Aguilar, Pedro Fernandez, Lila Downs, and Eugenia Leon.
He also appeared in various Hollywood motion pictures, including “A Walk in the Clouds,” “Sex in the City,” “Fiesta Mexicana,” and “Memories Memorias,” a PBS special narrated by Carr.
Jimenez was a featured artist on the 2006 Grammy Nominated album “Llegaron Los Camperos: Concert Favorites of Nati Cano’s Mariachi Los Camperos,” and the 2008 LP Grammy Award-winning album for “Best Mexican Album,”100% Mexicano by Pepe Aguilar, which won the 2008 Grammy for “Best Mexican Album.” He also performed on “Amor, Dolor, y Lagrimas” by Mariachi Los Camperos de Nati Cano, which won the 2009 Grammy Award for “Best Regional Mexican Album.”
Jimenez was featured on the Ry Cooder and The Chieftains’ 2010 release, “San Patricio.” He was nominated with Mariachi Los Camperos de Nati Cano for a Grammy in 2016 for their album, “Tradiciõn, Arte y Pasiõn,” produced by Smithsonian Folkways and again in 2019 with Mariachi Los Camperos for the album, “De Ayer Para Siempre.”