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NC’s ‘Queen of Mariachi’ debuts first album

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WFAE
When Maria Elena Valdez sings, she says she gives you her heart.

North of Charlotte, Mooresville’s Maria Elena Valdez is learning what it takes to be queen.

What started as a promise to family has become a mission to honor her Mexican heritage through song as North Carolina’s ‘Queen of Mariachi.’

Valdez began signing mariachi music as a child with her family in Mexico City. Music was something special they shared. But in those days, she was too shy to perform the sentimental ballads in public.

“I didn't want to perform in front of people,” Valdez said. “It was scary and I always was very shy when I was a little girl, so I used to hide.”

It wouldn’t be until this summer, at age 57, that Valdez would release her first album, Porque te conocí, ‘Because I met you’, composed by Martin Carrión.

The collection of songs pays homage to the traditional music of her youth and its deep roots in Mexican ranch or charro culture.

“It's good to share what you know, what you love. And what I love is my music, what I love is my family, my roots,” she said. “ They say, where [there] is mariachi is Mexico and where is Mexico is a mariachi. The music is vida, it's energía, alegría. And it's feeling. Es un sentimiento.”

When Valdez performs, she embraces the mariachi style and energy, from the attire to the emotion in her voice. But stepping into the persona took some convincing. She wasn’t always sure that she was fit to be queen.

“When my mother was very sick, about to die, she asked me to share my voice, 'share your talent.' I say, I don't know if I have talent. She made me promise her that I will try,” she said.

When she returned home, a friend suggested she adopt her stage name.

“I said, La Reina del Mariachi? No, I'm not like that. He said, Maria, believe in yourself,” she said. “And I was like, my mom says that. He says that. So the enemy here is me, not trusting myself.”

That was almost six years ago. Now, Valdez has a closet full of custom-made mariachi attire and a catalog of songs, ready for the stage.

“I don't feel that I have the best voice in all the entire world. No, but I try to give my feelings, my love to the people and try to make them love the music the way I love it. And I like when they sing with me — y volver, volver, volver — and then everybody starts singing. It's energy and it's love,” she said.

For Valdez, mariachi represents the past but it also has an important place in the present.

“I'm so proud to be a Mexican. I'm so proud to be a mariachi. I'm so proud to be a lady. I'm so proud to be a Latina. I'm so proud. And I want to transmit it to the new generation. I want them to not only sing, I want them to dance. I want them to be able to express themselves any way they want. All with respect,” she said.

In her own family as well, mariachi continues to be a powerful uniting force.

“My children, my family is more together, more close after this. My mom was so wise to make me do this because I didn't want to do it,” she said.

“Music is one of the tools to make you more in love with your roots. And roots are very important because it's like any tree. If you have very deep roots and strong, you survive better.”

Maria Elena Valdez’s music is now available for download on major streaming platforms.

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Kayla Young is a Report for America corps member covering issues involving race, equity, and immigration for WFAE and La Noticia, an independent Spanish-language news organization based in Charlotte.