Arts & Culture

Beatrice Viramontes is a maestro of gigs and digs

5 min read

How did a kid from East Los Angeles who couldn’t play the guitar and suffered from a near-phobia about singing become the president of Harvard’s renowned mariachi ensemble? Despite her roots in the primarily Mexican-American East L.A. and a father who played traditional Mexican music on his guitar, Beatrice Viramontes says it “stressed her out” when her father performed at family parties and asked her to sing. She only knew three songs.

So, when she came to Harvard as an undergraduate, she never expected traditional mariachi music to play a big part in her college life. Now, as president of Mariachi Veritas, Harvard’s only mariachi ensemble, Viramontes performs extensively, and both plays guitar and sings as lead female vocalist.

“It was exciting, unnerving at times, to get involved with mariachi because I couldn’t play the guitar very well, and I didn’t expect to become the lead singer,” says Viramontes. “It was a challenge, but the group was very welcoming. I grew to love this music — not that I did not love it before — but I was nervous about interacting with it. Now I embrace it, and it’s a big part of who I am.”

Viramontes was first introduced to Mariachi Veritas as a member of Harvard RAZA, a Mexican-American cultural group. She first sang as a guest, despite her limited vocal experience, and her voice developed through performances with that group and with the Kuumba Singers of Harvard College. And, when her dad sent her one of his older instruments, she began to play the guitar.

A concentrator in archaeology, Viramontes wrote her thesis on Chicano, or Mexican-American, murals in Los Angeles that surrounded her as a young person. The murals, which were painted beginning in the 1960s at the rise of the Chicano movement, often depict Aztec or Mayan pre-Columbian imagery. This link between the past and the present interested Viramontes, as did the murals’ inspirational capacity. She received the Thomas T. Hoopes Prize for her thesis.

“I grew up around these murals, and they impacted the way that I think about myself, my history, my ancestry, but also the way that I view my community,” says Viramontes. “I really believe that because these murals were around me, I wanted to study archaeology. I felt like I owed it to myself to explore this connection that I, as a Chicana, and other Chicanos feel between their present and this ancient past.”

Attending Harvard was not an early goal of Viramontes. Initially, the University of California, Los Angeles, was her dream school. When she did submit her college applications, she applied to only one school outside of California — Harvard — and only after a recruiter from Harvard’s admissions office visited her high school. Although she had an excellent GPA, and was involved with numerous extracurricular activities, she did not anticipate her acceptance. But she did get in, and Harvard offered a financial aid package she couldn’t refuse.

Having never left California other than to visit Mexico as a child, Viramontes’ decision to move across the country was a tough one. But on a visit to the campus with her mother during the pre-freshman weekend, she found the people welcoming and the environment stimulating.

Of course, Cambridge and Los Angeles are as unlike as east and west, but the adjustment to the new geography and culture was easier than Viramontes had anticipated.

“Harvard is very different, but I appreciate the differences. East Los Angeles is 99 percent Mexican. I thought that it was going to be culture shock, but that was more minimal than I had expected because there was more diversity,” says Viramontes.

After graduation, Viramontes will return to Los Angeles to teach in public schools as part of Teach for America. Her decision to join Teach for America was complex, in part because her mother, a teacher in Los Angeles, was initially opposed to it. But through understanding her daughter’s decision to teach, says Viramontes, her mother has become empowered to understand the impact of her own work.

If not for Harvard, Viramontes says that she might not have discovered her interest in archaeology, and she would not be considering graduate school, which she sees as a real option after completing Teach for America.

Today, her parents and her extended family are understandably proud of her mariachi performances, her studies of pre-Columbian art and artifacts, and her involvement and interest in the Latino community. While Harvard has been a challenge, it has also been transformative, both expanding her world of academic possibilities and bringing her closer to her cultural heritage.

“I came from the Los Angeles public school system, and that’s not the same as coming from a private school, so it was difficult for the first couple of years,” says Viramontes. “But now I feel confident and engaged with analyzing and interpreting the material.”