Recent early morning customers to a shop on West Commerce made neat piles of rich red rebozos, lace folding fans and satin handkerchiefs on a glass display case, selections made for their dance students in Colorado Springs.
Conrad and Leonor Gonzales had come home to San Antonio for Fiesta, with plans to meet up with other far-flung family members.
But a stop at Mariachi Connection was required to outfit the 34 young dancers in their nonprofit ballet folklorico group, for their next performance of a dance style from the Mexican state of Veracruz.
“This is our go-to place right here,” said Conrad Gonzales, whose older brother, Bruce, is a well-known teacher of the cultural dance style in San Antonio. Conrad Gonzales and his wife, founders of Ballet Folklorico de Barajas, usually order costumes from the Mariachi Connection catalog or website.
The store visit was a chance to take in some of Conrad’s hometown favorites. “I miss this place so much — the food, the music, the people,” he said.
Housed in an all-white, century-old Colonial mansion on the West Side, on the inside, the store explodes with vibrant color, shared laughs and at times musica.
Mariachi Connection was founded 27 years ago by Josie Benavides, a housewife and mother who turned a small business selling guitar strings from her living room into what is believed to be the largest supplier of mariachi and folklorico costumes and instruments in the Southwest, and likely all of the U.S.
Today, Benavides has the help of her sons, Joseph and Isaac Benavides, and a staff of less than a dozen others who run the store, ring up the customers, take phone orders and pack shipments.
With a full inventory of embroidered trajes, or suits, and velvety sombreros, ribboned skirts, bright-white jarocho dresses and peasant blouses, plus boots and shoes, Mariachi Connection provides the costumes for all ages of performers across the country and around the world.
The store doesn’t just supply what performers wear. The tools of the mariachi trade are also on display: chubby guitarróns, sleek violins and shiny trumpets.
The order processing room at the back of the store is filled with computer monitors and phones, and a series of clocks hung across the wall show the time in cities from coast to coast.
The store also fulfills custom orders in a range of colors and styles, though the black traje with silver gala is the most popular, Benavides said.
Even the moños, or ties, which come in a rainbow of solids and tricolor stripes, can be customized with embroidery.
Like the Gonzaleses, people come from all over to shop at the Mariachi Connection — and for all sorts of occasions, from weddings and quinceaneras to television shows and movies, Fiesta and Cinco de Mayo. Benavides recalled one customer who wanted the gala-adorned traje pants to wear while riding his motorcycle.
Famous customers include the rock band ZZ Top and rapper Paul Wall, who recently ordered a custom traje for his son, who Benavides said has a beautiful voice. The Spurs Coyote sometimes wears a silver and black traje made by Mariachi Connection.
The cost for a men’s or women’s mariachi costume can range between $200 and $600 depending on the silver and gold ornamentation — known as botonadura or gala — and the embroidery styles chosen.
“We do sell to schools, and usually the schools will put their logo on there or they’ll use their school colors just like band uniforms,” she said.
In fact, Mariachi Connection supplies the costumes for San Antonio Independent School District schools and dozens of other districts and universities that offer mariachi and ballet folklorico classes — a large part of her business.
“Mariachi wasn’t as popular as it is today,” Benavides said of the early days. When she opened the store, the back rooms of the old house were used as dance studios, with mirrors lining the walls, she said.
Now they are stacked to the coffered ceilings with boxes of costumes, instruments, shoes and sombreros. “I’ve been here to see the little kids starting from school, graduate, go to college, get a degree and now they are [mariachi] teachers,” she said.
An extravaganza for the art form
Cynthia Muñoz, a leading producer of mariachi festivals and concerts, calls San Antonio the birthplace of the whole mariachi festival movement, which began in 1979 with an annual competition event established by Belle San Miguel Ortiz.
Muñoz now organizes the weeklong event known as Mariachi Extravaganza, this year scheduled for Nov. 30 to Dec. 2 at the Lila Cockrell Theatre.
Mariachi Connection opened a few years after the Extavaganza first attracted thousands of performers and fans to San Antonio and raised the national profile of the art form. Muñoz estimates there are about 30,000 students involved in school-based mariachi programs today.
The store makes it possible for the musicians and dancers to look good, and that’s important, Muñoz said.
“This is a form of music that dates back more than 100 years, and it is very traditional and authentic,” she said. The costumes and how they are worn honor that tradition.
“There’s not a speckle of dust on the boots … there’s not one little hair that’s out of place when the girls pull their hair back into a traditional ponytail with the hairpiece and the sombrero over it,” Muñoz said.
“It is the utmost demonstration of excellence and perfection and desire to be the best, and that means playing at an exceptional level but also having this traje that’s worn with great pride.”
And the skirts of ballet folklorico are more than a costume, said dance instructor Lauren Biediger, who grew up learning many dance forms in McAllen. “It’s a tool,” she said. “And the shoes, too.”
A proprietor’s design
The costumes, footwear and accessories are made in Mexico and imported by Benavides for her store. “We have our own people that work for us,” she said. “We’re probably 90% to 95% of all their work.”
But of the two lines of dance shoes she stocks, one is manufactured by the Mariachi Connection. Benavides is proud of the footwear she designed that bears her name. The Josefina leather strap shoes and lace-up boots with silver nails pounded into the toe and heel come in black and white.
For all her knowledge and love of mariachi and ballet folklorico, Benavides is not a performer herself.
“I am not a dancer or a musician,” she said. “But I tried. I did take lessons. When [the instructor] said, ‘Do it again, and again’ I said, ‘Huh?’”
But she knows the joy and power of folklorico’s ruffled doble vuelo and the traje de gala of the mariachi.
“Once you put on a suit, it’s just like everything changes about you,” she said. “It just does something to you, like mariachi superhero or something, because it just changes everything.”