Mariachi USA Festival: Founder Rodri Rodriguez Talks Hollywood Bowl, New Day of the Dead Festival and Being Julio Iglesias’ Boss

Rodri Rodriguez founded the Mariachi USA Festival at the Hollywood Bowl 25 years ago. This year she celebrated the milestone anniversary with some of the best musicians in the genre and next will produce a Day of the Dead Festival in Los Angeles.

Just as Rodri Rodriguez is celebrating the 25th anniversary of Mariachi USA Festival at the Hollywood Bowl, the producer is already busy making plans for an new festival themed around Day of the Dead. 

The Cuban-born Rodriguez first made her mark in the music business in the mid-1970s when she worked for Latin International, part of EMI at the time, Rodriguez says.

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It was during those years that Rodriguez got to learn about the music business, especially production. Then she got the call that changed her life. She was asked if she could produce a concert for then rising singer Julio Iglesias.

"His show sold out at the Shrine Auditorium here in L.A.," Rodriguez recalls. "Back then I also advertised in English-language media. Then I also produced concerts for [Brazilian singer] Roberto Carlos and [Spanish crooner] Camilo Sesto before working with top agencies to take American artists to Mexico and South America. She worked with David Bowie, Eric Clapton and Stevie Wonder, among others.

"That got me on the road," Rodriguez says. "It all snowballed from there."

The Mariachi USA Festival (June 28) has become a staple Los Angeles outing for mariachi fans who often fly in from other countries each year, filling up the Hollywood Bowl to capacity featuring some of the biggest names in the genre from Mariachi Cobre, Mariachi Los Reyes and Mariachi Reyna de Los Angeles.

Rodriguez is next planning the Dia de Los Muertos Coachella Festival, which she calls a "spiritually grounded event that encompasses installations, food music and much more."

Taking time off from her producing schedule, Rodriguez spoke to Billboard about mariachi in today’s fast-changing industry, what it has taken to maintain the festival for more than two decades and what she did when Julio Iglesias tried to romance her:

Billboard: What does it feel like to have the Mariachi USA Festival turn 25?

Rodriguez: It’s like the first time every year. There are several generations of musicians who will be on stage. We’ve had many firsts such as the first all-female mariachi 22 years ago. Mexican-Americans are 39 percent of California. Our audience reflects what they see on stage. 

Do you think mariachi gets acknowledged enough?

Too often we look to people to acknowledge us. We don’t need it because within our demographic of our growing community we have mariachi music often: when a child is born, when there’s a wedding, when there’s a divorce, when there’s an engagement or when it’s girls night out. Mariachi has penetrated the center of the [Latino] household … so we don’t need acknowledgement when we’re already acknowledged in the place where it counts the most. 

Mariachi is stronger than it has ever been.

Why did you come up for Mariachi USA?

I had been producing shows in Los Angeles since 1976, then I took off internationally. The reason I decided to do Mariachi USA is that I really did it to spend more time with my mom and dad and not just be on a plane 3 times a month to Buenos Aires or to Santiago, Chile. I’m not a one-night stand woman (laughter). I knew this would flourish and it would go on and on even when people doubted this show would take off at the Hollywood Bowl.

How important has your nonprofit, the Mariachi USA Foundation, been for new generations of musicians?

The Mariachi USA Foundation started 24 years ago and it all started with one school. Now there’s like 30 schools that have mariachi as an after-school program. Next year we celebrate 25 years of the foundation. A lot of the kids got grants and many of them have grown up on the Hollywood Bowl stage, which has been the same home to the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Barbra Streisand and Frank Sinatra. 

What was it like working with Julio Iglesias and giving him direction back in the '70s? 

He tried [to romance me]. But I do not mix the two. A lot of people would believe different. The talk back then was that I was involved with him and I was not. We have the utmost mutual respect for each other. He took direction quite well and I gave him his 33rd birthday party. He turned 33 the day after his concert.

You have worked with major recording artists and took them to Mexico and South America. Who did you work with?

I worked with Miles Davis, Ella Fitzgerald, Eric Clapton, Bryan Adams, David Bowie and many others. All these artists have inspired me personally.

What can we expect from the Dia de los Muertos Coachella Festival?

Our tagline is “honoring the dead and celebrating the living.” We're all different but we are all born and die. There will be many elements to the festival. The celebration will be deeply rooted in Mexican tradition. We’ll be on 16 acres and we are hoping to expand. On the second day we’ll have mariachi and folklorico. We’ll be celebrating with many kinds of alters with the capacity to host 25,000 on Nov. 1 and 2. Our people will make this festival happen. They know quality.