Published March 17th, 2023 at 12:53 PM5 minute read
Mireya Ramos of Flor de Toloache, an all-female mariachi band from New York, isn’t taking her foot off the gas any time soon.
Today, the Grammy-nominated artist is gearing up for a St. Patrick’s Day show with Trevor Turla at The Ship. Then she returns to record her next album in Kansas City. But amid her busy schedule, she felt a tug to honor Women’s History Month. She wanted to give back.
Ramos has been coming to Kansas City for the past 10 years, connecting with local leaders and artists such as Enrique Chi and Erika Noguera. This visit is different. She is focused on community building and women empowerment.
On Saturday, March 18, Ramos presents a three-part event that includes a workshop, vendor-plus-networking event and a concert called “Ladies Rock” at Charlotte Street Foundation.
Flatland caught up with Ramos ahead of her event Saturday to learn more about her family’s connection to mariachi, her writing process and importance of Afro-Latinx representation.
Note: This interview has been edited for clarity.
Flatland: What was your first memory to connection to music?
Mireya Ramos: My dad is from Mexico (and) my mom is from Dominican Republic. They’re both very passionate about music — they both sang. My father was a mariachi singer. And so, I grew up going to his gigs and watching him connect with people through this beautiful tradition of mariachi.
F: Can you describe what genres or experiences influenced you as a musician?
MR: I was raised in Puerto Rico. So, I have that in my cultural journey. It’s a very big part of me and my music, what I like and how I express my music.
Coming out of high school, I moved to New York. … (Then) I started my musical career. I can say my first job was with a mariachi, which is something completely unexpected. It is not what I envisioned.
But it was a great and wonderful way to connect to my roots and (to) my father, who I was not with at that time when I was in New York. It was my way to remember him and feel connected to him. I learned so much of my Mexican heritage through this experience.
F: Walk us through that journey, from New York music student to the founder of your own mariachi band.
MR: (In the) mariachi tradition, it’s not traditional to improvise. That really … sparked the desire to learn how to improvise even more. I started playing with salsa bands and hip-hop DJs and Brazilian music – all kinds of music.
New York was just the greatest platform for that. There’s so much diversity and so much to absorb. New York was like my school for music.
In 2008, I founded Flor de Toloache, which is New York City’s first all-female mariachi. … We were nominated for Latin Grammy in 2015 and that literally opened the doors for us. We’re an independent band, so it was quite an accomplishment to even be considered to be part of the Grammys. People (who) had never seen mariachi before, connected to our music because we did original stuff, we did fusion.
F: If you had to describe your sound for someone who has never heard Flor de Toloache, what would that be?
MR: We have the influence of like New York hip-hop, and salsa and bachata and everything. Like, we really, really go for it in our arrangements. And we use the mariachi instruments in very different ways.
We think about what songs are kind of rhythms we haven’t done yet, or what kind of songs we would like to write. What kind of message do we want to give with this album, as a whole? Our most recent album is a really personal album, because we talk about stories of things that happen to us as women.
F: Tell us more about being an all-female mariachi band.
MR: We’ve expanded the genre in a very free way. It’s very reflective of the platform of New York and our experience (there), how everyone comes from different countries. Everyone adds their own flavor to the arrangements.
We’ve contributed a lot to the mariachi genre. And to be specific, we started wearing mariachi pants, which was not a traditional thing to do. We got a lot of heat for it. We weren’t the first ones … but we are the ones who made it internationally known.
That’s also opened the doors for other female groups to create freely without having to worry about, ‘Oh, my God, I’m going to be criticized by these traditionalists.’ You’re going to be criticized anyway. So just, you might as well be happy with what you’re doing … put it out there.
Our approach to the music that we do is we want to be genuine and as close to our stories and make sure that our stories are being heard.
F: How has your dual identity and experiences living in different areas informed your process?
MR: Music has really saved me and has really been a big avenue for me to find myself and really understand myself.
It was hard growing up (in Puerto Rico). My parents are both (from different places). My mom was very Dominican. My father was very Mexican. And I was in a different context, different space and different culture.
I grew up not knowing where I belonged. Then even moving to New York, even though there’s like everything, still I heard: ‘Oh, you’re not Latina enough, or you’re not Mexican enough. You’re not Dominican enough. You’re not this, you’re not that.’
Music really made me connect with myself and be OK with the fact that I don’t need to be those things. I can be whatever I feel.
F: What other experiences inspired your desire to empower women?
MR: There are a lot of people like me out there, I’m not the only one. And, you know, sometimes you feel alone, but … they’re out there.
It definitely plays a big part in what we do and what I do personally. For me, it’s become really important to always speak about representation, and especially Afro Latinos.
My mom was very big on making sure that my brother and I were proud to be Afro Latinos through music. She would teach us all these songs like ‘Angelito Negros,’ which is on my album. That was her way of making sure that (we knew) this was important. She was doing it very organically, but it really worked. Because it has sat with me this whole time.
F: What sort of feedback do you get when you sing songs your mother passed down?
MR: What we’re doing is needed. I’ve had shows where I’ve been singing ‘Las Caras Lindas,’ (by Afro Puerto Rican composer Ismael Rivera), and little girls come after the show. They look like me. They’re like, mixed and they have curly hair, and they’re Afro Latinos. They say, ‘I’m so glad you sang the song.’
Even though this is a song they probably don’t quite understand, but they feel it and they’re so glad that somebody is speaking for them. I didn’t have anyone other than my mom that I looked up to, that looked like me, (who) was doing what I’m doing.
F: What was the impetus behind ‘Ladies Rock’?
MR: I’ve noticed that there isn’t a celebration for Women’s History Month of this kind.
We need it as artists, as especially women. It is also a way to connect with other women and share your stories and network. And create a community. Sometimes (when) we feel really alone, we’re discouraged.
You’re not alone. You can come together in so many ways. You can collaborate in even ways that you didn’t think of.
“Ladies Rock” is a ticket-only event, which you can purchase here. The workshop begins at 4 p.m. She will teach breathing techniques, vocal stylings and play with different genres. An all-female vendor and networking market will take place after at 5 p.m. The concert will begin at 7 p.m.
Vicky Diaz-Camacho covers community affairs for Kansas City PBS.