A Career in Six Gifts / Una Carrera en Seis Reglas

Written by Brett Campbell; Photographed by Frankie Tresser

1. The First Guitar

When she was fifteen, a boy who had a crush on her gave Edna Vazquez a classical guitar. She wasn’t interested in the boy—even then, she sensed her romantic interests would be female—but the instrument immediately seduced her. Despite no previous experience, Vazquez was soon playing that guitar proficiently, and accompanying her already vibrant voice in song.

Vazquez grew up in 1980s Jalisco, birthplace of mariachi, Mexico’s most famous musical form. Her grandfather would play mariachi on the radio for the family, and Edna marveled at how the passionate, sentimental songs could bring even the most macho men to tears. Later, the dynamism of Mexican psychedelic rock, the way modern-day troubadours addressed social and political issues in Cuban-style trova songs, and other influences inspired Vazquez to start writing her own songs.

2. The Voice

One day, unable to afford to buy her grandmother a birthday gift, the teenage Vazquez instead learned her favorite song—and sang it for her, in an untrained voice that even then could thrill listeners with its depth and emotional power. Her grandmother, who had been a singer in her youth, began to weep for joy. She knew her granddaughter had the gift.

This gift would take Vazquez from Mexico to Oregon, to performances at the Hollywood Bowl, the Kennedy Center, Lincoln Center, and on world tours. So strong and versatile is her vocal instrument that Vazquez can credibly sing in any style she chooses. Her intense commitment makes her a transfixing stage presence, her voice soaring, then roaring, sometimes adding whistling, percussive guitar, and rapping that all sounds organic and deeply felt. The music seems to possess her whole body. But it’s about more than Vazquez alone.

“I’ve always looked up to leaders like Joan of Arc,” she explains. “Strong women who had something that they used for the good, in service to their community.”

3. The Second Guitar

When seventeen-year-old Edna later told her parents that she’d fallen in love with her best friend, who happened to be female, they shipped her off to the U.S. to live with relatives. Shortly after moving to Oregon in 1997, Vazquez was singing aloud to herself in her high school’s bathroom. A friend overheard, and asked her to sing the song as a surprise for her busy mother’s upcoming birthday party.

The mother owned an import store in Hillsboro that sold guitars, and was so impressed that she gave one to Vazquez as a present—and asked her to perform it with a mariachi band the following weekend. To her surprise, Vazquez felt completely at home fronting the band. The bandleader immediately offered her yet another gift: a permanent spot in Mariachi Los Palmeros, making Vazquez one of the Northwest’s first female mariachi singers.

4. The Dream

Vazquez played mariachi at parties and restaurants weekly, which kept her in touch with her musical roots. But over the next decade, she felt increasingly confined by mariachi’s formulaic limitations. She wanted to explore the rock sounds and trova social protest messages that had enticed her during her teen years in Mexico.

Her all-male bandmates resisted. “They wouldn’t take my ideas. They wanted me to play violin because, they said, ‘that looks good for a woman,’” she remembers. “But I really loved the guitar, and I wouldn’t play violin.”

Continue Reading