Maria the Mexican: A Tribute Act

Maria Elena Cuevas, lead vocalist and co-founder of Maria the Mexican (JC Jones Photography)

Sisters Maria Elena and Tess Cuevas created the band to honor their grandmother, Maria Teresa Alonzo Cuevas, founder of the groundbreaking all-woman Mariachi band, Mariachi Estrella

Since 2011 Maria the Mexican, headed by sister singers Maria Elena and Tess Cuevas, has been serenading local audiences, both in English and Spanish, with a singular blend of south-of-the-border rhythms and tones mixed with soul, funk and indie blues. They call their sound “Americana-Mexicana Roots Rock,” delivered by a band that includes drums, bass, electric guitar, congas, trumpet and keyboard.

The Cuevas sisters founded Maria the Mexican to honor their grandmother, Maria Teresa Alonzo Cuevas, creator of the groundbreaking all-female Mariachi Estrella (“Star” in Spanish) band, one of the first of its kind anywhere. Comprising seven women in custom-made traditional decorated black suits and gem-encrusted sombreros blasting out mariachi tunes, Mariachi Estrella broke the mold, making headlines in the male-dominated mariachi world.

Maria Teresa Alonzo Cuevas (known as Teresa in the family), grew up in Topeka after her parents fled to Kansas during the 1910-1920 Mexican Revolution. She studied classical music and violin from the age of 8 and became nationally known for her talent. But it was to the musical traditions of her parents and distant family — especially, mariachi, that she was drawn.

Teresa blossomed each year at the Fiesta Mexicana, and in 1977 she founded Mariachi Estrella. The women musicians, who basically taught themselves, had to reach back to Mexico for the required instruments, the vihuela and the guitarrón, as they were unavailable in the Midwest. The venture coalesced when a new priest from Guatemala wanted to incorporate Latin American folk music into services. After attending a mariachi conference in San Antonio, the band members returned determined to make their mark. They steadily gained in popularity — not because they were groundbreaking, but because they produced the true sounds of mariachi.

In July 1981 Mariachi Estrella was waiting to perform at the Hyatt in Kansas City when the Skywalks collapsed. Four of the members were killed. Teresa and one other were badly injured (another member had, luckily, not been able to make the trip).

Teresa’s road to recovery was long and painful, but following the collapse, she pushed forward and began teaching mariachi to Maria and Tess. Maria says her grandmother was “almost magical in my eyes.” Mariachi Estrella was very active during the two sisters’ high school years, severely limiting the teenage lives they often coveted. Still, Maria considers “those times spent with the band and my family some of the most special moments.” The girls went on to classical training at KU, Tess on violin and Maria on the piano, and continued with Mariachi Estrella for 10 years.

The Founding of Maria the Mexican 

In 2000, while still with Mariachi Estrella, the sisters began branching out and adding new music flavors. They brought in Garrett Nordstrom, a Kansas City songwriter and guitarist, and in 2011, Maria the Mexican was born, debuting a new repertoire.

Maria is the lead vocalist and guitarist; she plays acoustic, electric and traditional Mexican instruments. Tess supplies vocals and violin, when her life as a mother of two young children allows her the time. Nordstrom, familiar from his previous alt R&B group, The Garrett Nordstrom Situation, is in front with guitar and in back with song development. There is a lot of original content, which ranges from romantic to political in nature.

In 2022, Maria the Mexican performed at Day of the Dead festivities with Flor de Toloache at Knuckleheads and at the annual Holiday Party at Knuckleheads’ Gospel Lounge. The group will soon announce its 2023 shows, but Maria is most excited about releasing the group’s third album, six years in the making.

Maria enjoys yet another audience of fans as a yoga instructor. With a teaching certificate from Davanna Yoga in Puerta Vallarta in 2016, she now leads classes at Woodside and Kalos the Space in Kansas City and Vibe in Lawrence. A devotee since college, when she turned to it as a stress reliever, she values its physical benefits but says, “Lately, I’ve been mostly focused on the mental aspects, in particular meditation and yoga’s ability to calm the nervous system.”

Maria Teresa Alonzo Cuevas died in Topeka in 2013 at the age of 93, a music history icon. In March of last year, the Cuevas family worked with the Downtown Topeka Foundation to construct and place a bronze, life-size statue of Teresa on Kansas Avenue. She’s the lone woman immortalized there. An earlier sculpture, “Mariachi Divina,” located outside the Topeka Performing Arts Center, honors the four members of Mariachi Estrella killed at the Hyatt. In 2010, the band was recognized in a short documentary film, “Mariachi Estrella,” by Lawrence filmmakers Marlo Angell and Peter Jasso.

In the aftermath of the Hyatt accident, Teresa’s family saw her commit to wholeheartedly promoting her Mexican heritage and roots. Filling her mariachi boots is a tall order, but Maria the Mexican is a great fit.

Rebecca Smith

Rebecca Smith is an impassioned supporter of local performances of all types, who welcomes the  opportunity to promote them to KC Studio readers.

Leave a Reply