Published October 20th, 2020 at 9:00 AM
Teresa Cuevas is a household name in Topeka, Kansas.
Cuevas emerged as a mariachi star in her 50s and is widely regarded as a matriarch for Latino musicians – particularly women – in Kansas. But her story is unique, having become a local musician as a 50-year-old divorcee.
When she was younger, she was focused on being a wife and a mother. Jobs were hard to come by for a young woman with a high school diploma. That didn’t deter her.
“That’s the way my mother was, just hardworking,” said Rosemary Menser, one of Teresa’s daughters.
Emilio Cuevas, the oldest of five children, agreed. Teresa would be awake before the sun rose to cook breakfast for her five children, pack their lunches and whisk them off to school. Then, while her husband was out, she would clean houses for extra cash. After that, she attended school, to return home at 10 p.m.
“One time when I was looking at a high school yearbook and I was the best-dressed freshman there. Why? Because of my mother. And I realize later on because of her desire to succeed,” Emilio said.
The Cuevas family was part of a small Mexican community in Topeka. And because of that, her children say their parents kept their heads down, worked and provided for the kids. To some extent, Teresa Cuevas was disconnected from her heritage.
In her late 40s, she and her husband separated after years of conflict. Now that she was alone, she wanted to do something she loved that made her feel good, feel important — music. So, after nearly 30 years of leaving it behind to raise her family, she picked up her violin.
“Because she was a hard worker, she went from raising children, having a job… to her music,” Emilio said.
It was only when her kids were grown and gone, Emilio added, that “she sat back and realized who she was and wanted to join the Mexican people as a violinist.”
This realization snowballed. The friendships she made with ladies in her church choir sparked talks of wanting to play and write music, which led to the formation of Mariachi Estrella de Topeka. They were an all-female mariachi group, playing music that was traditionally played by a group of men with booming voices and handsome suits. Most striking, they were in a city in the middle of the map.
“Everybody looked up to them,” David Chavez said. His aunt and cousin were part of Mariachi Estrella.
Chavez added: “You see, (mariachi and) trios, it’s always male-dominated. We’re talking about what, the ‘70s? Any other musicians in the Midwest were mostly guys.”
Although Teresa claimed that she and her friends didn’t set out to form an all-female group, they took the scene by storm. And for Teresa, this music was deeply personal.
Her love for music came from her father, who migrated to the Midwest in the early 1900s – as many other Mexican laborers did because of the Mexican Revolution. Historically, a wave of folks made the long trek north to find stable jobs and, later, build communities near the railroad tracks.
Small pockets of Mexican communities began to take root, like the Cuevas family.
Growing up, Teresa excelled in the school orchestra, landing first or second chair. So when she picked up her violin for the first time in over 30 years, it all came flooding back.
She was good. Mariachi Estrella was good, and people began to notice.
The seven women decked to the nines in burgundy suits — called trajes — lit stage after stage in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. Nobody would even know that they were self-taught. If the song they wanted to play didn’t include a part for a certain instrument, Teresa would write an arrangement.
As the oldest of the band, she coached and encouraged her bandmates. It was in her nature, former bandmates said.
In the 1980s, Mariachi Estrella became popular and played everywhere, at local fiestas, festivals, conferences and concerts. And in 1981, they were invited to play for a private event in Kansas City.
Then tragedy struck. On July 17, 1981 at around 7 p.m., two skywalks collapsed at the Hyatt Regency Hotel during one of the hotel’s popular tea dances. It was one of the deadliest structural failures in U.S. history, with 114 deaths and about 200 people injured.
Teresa Cuevas was injured, buried under rubble and chunks of cement for several hours. Clouds of dust made it difficult to breathe and she felt like she was going to die. So she prayed, in Spanish: “Dios ayudame.” Soon thereafter she heard a man say, “There’s a live one.” She survived.
“She felt God saved her for a purpose so that strengthened her,” Rosemary said.
Among the skywalk deaths were four members of Mariachi Estrella: Connie “Chae” Alcala, Dolores Carmona, Linda Rokey Scurlock and Dolores Galvan.
After the accident, Teresa continued to play with a restructured version of Mariachi Estrella, in memory of the women who died and for the future of mariachi. In the years that followed, she mentored youth and passed down the mariachi tradition. That included her grandchildren.
One of her granddaughters, Michelle Cuevas-Stubblefield, will never forget her grandmother’s impact.
Instead of having a big 15th birthday bash for her quinceañera, Cuevas-Stubblefield chose to go to a mariachi conference in San Antonio with her grandmother. Having been born and raised in Topeka, she’d never seen so many Mexicans in her life, she said, chuckling.
But what struck her most was how a slew of male mariachi musicians — some of whom were veterans — revered her grandmother.
Teresa played and practiced until her death in 2013 at the age of 93.
“She lived daily what she loved. … What I always remember is she said, ‘(It’s) your responsibility to be a good person, to work hard, to be proud of yourself, your culture and most importantly represent your family,’” Cuevas-Stubblefield said. “She taught us that through her music.”
Note: Stay tuned for a special audio feature of the “Mariachi Stars of Kansas” slated for Friday, Oct. 23 on NPR’s Alt. Latino news magazine show. This feature will also air on 90.9 The Bridge on Sunday, Oct. 25 at 9 a.m.