This is the second out of three parts of the "New U.S. issues" series, to read part one click here.
The U.S. Postal Service on July 15 celebrated the sounds of traditional music from Mexico with a first-day-of-issue ceremony to dedicate a set of five Mariachi Forever stamps at the 30th annual Mariachi Spectacular de Albuquerque in New Mexico.
Monica Trujillo, artistic director for the festival, said it was an honor to hold the first day ceremony. “Through our music and the special memories evoked by these skillfully rendered works of art, it is our hope that each and every person that comes across these stamps can experience some of the magic that we get to experience with every note, lyric and nuance that is mariachi,” she said.
Each of the stamps features a musician dressed in the traditional outfit of mariachi performers, each with one of five iconic mariachi instruments: guitar, guitarrón (a very large bass guitar), the lute-like vihuela, a violin and trumpet. Three of the characters are singing. The geometric shapes in the background of each stamp are a nod to Mexican villages, where mariachi music originated in the early part of the 19th century.
Illustrator and artist Rafael López created the art and designed the stamps, which are being sold in panes of 20. Derry Noyes served as art director.
López said he wanted the stamps to pop with a lot of color. “Mariachis are colorful. Mexico and Central America are colorful.”
Using papel picado (hanging paper decorations) – such as those found on U.S. stamps issued in 2016 – for inspiration, the artist created a three-tiered image for each stamp, in which the viewer sees the character, then a town and a flat background.
“For the artists, I really wanted to show emotion,” López said. “And if you show strong emotions, you need to show strong colors to present the energy of mariachi.”
Five Mariachi stamps from the U.S. Postal Service are being sold on panes of 20 and are available here.
The Postal Service noted that “mariachi” refers to several things: to the music itself; to an individual musician or an ensemble of musicians; and, when used as an adjective, to anything identified with the music — be it dance or costume or culture. The first known written reference to the word “mariachi” was made in the 1850s, but the music’s roots stretch back long before.
“Growing up, I remember nostalgic weekends listening to the uniquely Mexican sound of mariachi music in Plaza Garibaldi in Mexico City,” said stamp artist López. “Mariachi music is an emblem of Mexican cultural heritage with roots in the United States and followers around the globe and I’m excited and honored to share the vibrant spirit of this music with these stamps.”
The Postal Service offered the following on the musical form:
Though mariachi’s exact origins are obscure, it appears to have begun in western Mexico, where itinerant musicians made their living traveling from village to village and visiting ranches in the countryside to perform. The music of early mariachi included folk traditions from Spain, Mexico and Africa that melded to create a new indigenous musical form, the son. The sones developed in various regional styles.
Beginning in the 1930s, mariachi music reached a new, wider audience as it was embraced by urban radio stations and used on soundtracks by Mexican filmmakers.
Mariachi bands traditionally used the round-backed guitar called the vihuela, which gives the mariachi music its rhythmic vitality; the guitarrón, a bass guitar; and the Mexican folk harp, the arpa. By the 1940s and 1950s, the modern urban mariachi sound emerged with the expanded instrumentation including violins and trumpets. Today, ensembles continue to broaden the use of instruments, with some groups adding six to eight violins, two to four trumpets, an accordion, and the arpa, which had fallen out of use but has made a comeback among professional groups.
While mariachi music had been in the United States for many years, by the 1960s, American churches, schools and universities began to develop and sponsor mariachi programs. Immigrants to various parts of the United States created vibrant regional mariachi cultures that widened the appeal of this traditional music to new audiences.
Mariachi musicians are immediately recognizable in their traditional costume called traje de charro or charro suit. An adaptation of a Spanish horseman’s riding outfit, it consists of fitted trousers adorned with silver buttons for men and full-length skirts for women, a short jacket, an embroidered belt, a wide bow tie, and a wide-brimmed hat. Though black with silver embellishments is traditional, today mariachi wear costumes in many colors.
In recognition of the importance and widespread appeal of mariachi music and culture, UNESCO added it to its Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity list in 2011.
López, an internationally recognized artist and illustrator, has created artwork for 13 U.S. stamps, including the Elephants stamp issued August 12. His other designs include Merengue (part of the Let’s Dance set, 2005), Mendez v. Westminster court case (2007) and the Latin Music Legends set of five (2011).
The Latin Music Legends stamps of 2011, designed by Rafael López, showed singers with their mouths open.
López took a few minutes this spring for a Zoom talk from his home and studio in Mexico (he also has a home and studio in San Diego) to talk with the APS about stamp design, art, music and Mariachi and working with Sotomayor.
The artist said he started working on the stamps about two years ago when Noyes called to tell him about a “perfect” assignment. López grew up in Mexico City and was surrounded by music, including mariachi, thanks to a family that had a deep appreciation for the arts. (His parents were architects.)
López went to high school in Mexico but moved to southern California to attend the Art Center College of Design.
“When I really started appreciating the music was when I moved to the U.S.,” López said. I spent maybe seven or eight years in the U.S. before moving back to Mexico City. I had been away from my friends for so many years, and it (mariachi music) really got to me. It was something I never really appreciated as a kid, but as an adult it really got to me to the point where I got all teary and emotional. You miss everything it represents – happiness and so much passion. There is something about the beat of the music that you can’t help but move your feet and feel happy no matter where you’re from.”
López said he wanted to instill the joy and action of singing into the 2011 Latin Legends stamps and followed suit with the new Mariachi stamps.
“Things were a little bit unique with the Latino series,” López explained. “I wanted to represent them singing, with their mouths open, not just as if they were posing. I wanted to represent them in the moment.”
He said it took a while to get the Postal Service in favor of the idea, first working with stamp designer Ethel Kessler, with whom he had previously worked.
“It took some time to get everybody on board,” López recalled. “Ethel was on board, but she said, ‘we have never done this before.’ We didn’t want it to look like someone just stepped on (the singer’s) foot and they said ‘aaaeee-ayaaaa.’”
The design worked well and López followed up showing three of the five Mariachi performers capturing the essence of the moment with their mouths open.
López said he worked from photographs of models provided by the Postal Service, though, the original model for the violinist was a male, which he turned into a woman for the stamp, and there was apparently a “problem” with another one of the models. He switched the vihuela character to an image based on his nephew, who had to sign an official release for use of his image.
“Then, I wanted to make that character a little older than my nephew, who was 20 at the time, so I did make some facial changes,” the artist said.
The images were all created via a computer program, “but every texture you see was created by hand,” said López, who offered a brief explanation of the process.
“I spend about a month working on my table creating different textures with rollers and rags and paper, and I use ink and I soak things and roll it around and distress the surface. And then I scan everything. So everything was painted and I put it all together digitally. If there is any editing, it’ a lot easier to move things around digitally.”
Aside from stamps, López has commercial clients and is an award-winning children’s book illustrator.
López’s illustrations bring diverse characters to children’s books and he is driven to produce and promote books that reflect and honor the lives of young people. His award-winning illustrations have graced several best-selling children’s books, including The Year We Learned to Fly (2022), written by Jacqueline Woodson; The Day You Begin (2019), also by Woodson; and Dancing Hands, How Teresa Carreño Played the Piano for President Lincoln (2020), by Margarita Engle.
He may have received the greatest publicity for creating the illustrations for the children’s book, Just Ask! Be Different, Be Brave, Be You (2019), written by Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor.
López said Sotomayor, whose parents were from Puerto Rico, chose him to illustrate Just Ask!, the first of her two children’s books (Just Help! How to Build a Better World was released this year.)
“I could not believe that she chose me and I asked her why … She said, ‘I saw color in your work and it made me happy. … I wanted to bring a lot of bright colors into our work.’ ”
The artist said the publisher and editors kept author and artist apart during the creation process. “She approved my sketches as we went along.”
López finally got to meet her after the book was printed at a conference in New York City.
“It was very intimidating at first because she was surrounded by Secret Service and I could barely see her through the crowd,” he said. “But then came up and shook my hand and gave me a hug like she knew me forever, and that was the start of a very nice friendship. She has so much energy, it’s amazing. She’s a wonderful person.”