On a sweltering mid-August day in Delano, Anaí Adina Morales sat at her dining room table in the home where she grew up. She quieted down her two small dogs and then played the beginning of the music to Nuestro Gran Amor on her phone to make sure she was in the right key.
“Como el sol le hace falta a la luna,” she sang in acapella. The song is number 12 on her recently released mariachi debut album, Espérame En El Cielo. It’s a mix of mostly love songs, some accompanied only by a guitar and others with a full 30-piece mariachi band.
The 18-year-old has been part of mariachi bands since she was 6. She can play the violin, guitar, guitarrón, and trumpet.
“I would say it’s like a lifestyle, you know? Because if I’m not teaching it or performing it, I’m singing in the shower, I’m singing while I clean the house,” she said. “It’s always there.”
Little Village Foundation is the record label that produced Morales’ album. It's a non-profit organization that seeks out artists from many different musical and cultural traditions who might not be heard outside of their communities.
A youth mariachi ensemble called Mariachi Mestizos and a Latino youth Symphonic Orchestra, Enriching Lives Through Music, collaborated on songs on the album. Members of Mariachi Mestizos are also all students at Morales’ family's music studio in Delano, The Mariachi Studio.
Mariachi is "family, it's my culture, it's the story of so many people before me, it's everything," she said.
Morales has traveled around the country with Mariachi Mestizos. One of the most memorable performances she had with the group, she said, was on April 10, 2017 at Carnegie Hall in New York City.
“I used to have a poster of Carnegie Hall in my room and it was like of Carnegie Hall from the perspective of you on the stage,” Morales said. “So, you just see all the seats and the lights and everything.”
On the night she performed, she said she watched from the side as the seats filled up. Soon the lights were shining on her face.
“It was epic, just extremely beautiful and the colors, it literally felt like magic just looking at it,” Morales said. “I just told myself, ‘Ok, you’re only going to do this once. You've got to give it all you've got and try to remember every moment of it.”
Mariachi Mestizos has also played at The Kennedy Center and at the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival. People hear the ensemble every weekend around Kern County at weddings, quinceañera's, and other family celebrations.
Another more recent memory she’ll never forget, Morales said, is the day she got accepted to Harvard. “When I looked at the screen, it throws confetti on the screen when you open it, and so I saw that and I was like, ‘Wait, what?’ I was just like shook, you know?”
Morales said her parents started screaming, she was crying, and so were her two older sisters.
"I don't think I would've been the person who I am today without mariachi," Morales said. "I think that was very evident on my college application. Every chance that I got to write about mariachi I would write about it, and I think it's something not a lot of people know about. I think it definitely set me apart from other applicants."
One of her sisters, Sochi, is already at Harvard, and Morales said she’s excited to be in the same place as her “partner in crime.” Sochi is also a musician and together they’re going to play in Harvard’s Mariachi Club.
“So we’re going to take it over this year, me and her together,” Morales said.
More recently, Morales won the Shining Star award at the Battle of Mariachis competition in San Juan Capistrano.
The 13 songs on the album are a compilation of Morales’ 13 favorite cover songs, she said, plus one song that her dad wrote, Corrido de las Heledas, about the first time it snowed in Kern County, and how that affected the crops.
Morales' dad, Juan Morales, runs The Mariachi Studio in Delano, where she recorded the album. He helped her produce it; it started with only her voice and a guitar.
“Then I said, ‘Well why don’t you play this song with the harp?’ And then, ‘Why don’t we add two violins?’ And then, ‘Why don’t we put trumpet here? Why don’t we use the mariachi?’ All of a sudden it was a 30-piece orchestra,” Juan said.
Before moving to the Valley, Juan played in professional mariachis around the world. He was in Los Camperos, Mariachi Cobre and La Mariachi Sol de Mexico. He also taught mariachi to all three of his daughters, and it all started before they were born.
“We used to play music in the womb for them,” he said. “My wife would put some contraption that we designed [on her stomach] and we played music constantly while they were being made.”
It had a lasting effect; the family still plays together.
“The most exciting thing is we get to spend the evenings together, my wife and I and our kids,” said Juan, who is also a middle school music teacher in Bakersfield. “We’ve been fortunate to have this opportunity for our girls.”
All three daughters have taught music in the studio.Before she left for Harvard, Anaí Morales said she told her students to challenge themselves in everything they do.
“The second that it’s easy you’re not learning anything, you’re not growing from it,” she said. “So that’s the advice I would give anyone who wants to do anything. You have to make sure you always challenge yourself so that you can grow.”
She said she’s going to college with an open mind; she thinks she wants to study some type of science but she might go into music.
Espérame En El Cielo is streaming on Spotify and Apple Music.