Mireya Ramos endures, finds empowerment in all-female mariachi group

Growing up in Puerto Rico, Mireya Ramos of Flor De Toloache absorbed traditional mariachi music via her performer father, drawn foremost to the way the form appeared to bond him to audiences.

“He had a very powerful voice, and I just fell in love with the connection he had with people, and how magical it seemed when I was little,” said Ramos, who will join her bandmates in performing two sets at the Nelsonville Music Festival: 3:30 p.m. Saturday, June 8, and 2 p.m. Sunday, June 9 (the festival begins on Thursday, June 6, and continues through Sunday).

At the time, Ramos took little notice of just how traditionally male-dominated mariachi was as a form — a standing that largely eluded her until she moved to New York City and started cutting her teeth among other musicians within the scene.

“I came to New York and someone invited me to play violin in this new group that was starting. The singer was Dominican, and the rest of the band had just come from Puebla, Mexico. They were older guys, and I was like 19 years old and had never played mariachi, but I'd heard all the songs and I knew them; they were in my ear,” said Ramos, who started playing violin at age 7. “And I stuck with it for seven years, and that's when I realized how much cultural difference there was, and how much of a male-dominated genre it is. I had many moments where there were cultural clashes and some tensions, just for the simple fact that I would express myself. … As the only woman, I would come up with an arrangement and say, ‘Hey, what if we play this song this way,' and they would just shut that down.”

Inspired by these experiences, Ramos formed the all-woman Flor De Toloache in 2008, determined to inject her voice into the music that felt as much a part of her DNA as the color of her eyes. Initially, the group started by busking on the subway, eventually landing a monthly residency at Rockwood Music Hall in 2012, a period Ramos described as vital in terms of the group finding its musical voice, which is born of mariachi's centuries-old tradition but refuses to treat the form as a museum piece, fusing it with everything from reggae to R&B to Bachata and beyond.

“My mom used to tell me, ‘Music is for everybody. Don't close your mind to one thing,'” Ramos said. “So when I came to New York, I had the blessing … of being exposed to so many types of music and so many cultures, and you absorb all of that. It's a dream come true to be in New York and to be able to do mariachi, but then to develop my voice within that tradition.”

This cultural mashup takes center stage on the band's excellent 2019 album, Indestructible, which sets airy, reggae-inflected numbers (a cover of “Quisiera” by Juan Luis Guerra that includes a vocal assist from John Legend, singing in Spanish) alongside seductive, R&B-tinged turns like “Besos de Mezcal.” The group also turns out a Spanish version of Miguel's “Told You So” (“Te Lo Dije”), a collaboration that came about after Ramos learned that the singer was her cousin, and that their late grandmothers had performed regularly together on Mexican radio.

“Both of our grandmothers had just passed while we were recording, so it was extra special we were making this song together, almost like they had brought us together,” said Ramos, who was first approached about a potential collaboration nearly two years ago in a Facebook message from Miguel's father. “Little did I know it was the Miguel,” she said, and laughed.

Lyrically, a number of the songs on Indestructible center on the theme of empowerment, which Ramos said was less a carefully conceived plan than a natural byproduct of being a group of women making traditional Mexican music during an era when both groups are under near-constant political attack.

“We've had many, many young girls come up to us and say, ‘You make us proud to be Mexican,' and that's a huge thing,” said Ramos, who noted that the band members come from myriad cultural backgrounds. “But being an all-female group, we don't just inspire women. We can also inspire men to see things in a different way.”

This even includes former adversaries, including one who used to seemingly go out of his way to make Ramos feel unsettled within New York's mariachi scene.

“This guy apologized to me after being really rude to me for a long time,” Ramos said. “He was very macho and very closed-minded, but he apologized because he realized I was a good musician and professional, and he said, ‘You're going to go far, and I'm sorry I was so rude to you.' Just in that moment, you feel like you've changed things a little bit. … Maybe moving forward being an all-female mariachi group will have less of a ‘wow' factor. Maybe this will be more of a normal thing for the next generation.”