Mariachi singer turns loss into love for arts – and community

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Ms. Robles teaches a folkloric dance class for children at her cultural center, Oct. 4, in East Boston.

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Veronica Robles says being an international mariachi performer was not her end goal. So despite critical acclaim as an artist, including founding New England’s first all-female mariachi band, she has poured her love into a cultural center that draws the Latino community of East Boston.

On a recent day she teaches children the value of never breaking a circle and always moving forward. They are the very lessons Ms. Robles had to learn herself, at the lowest time in her life after the death of her only child. Now the founder and director of the Veronica Robles Cultural Center leans in on her own resilience to uplift and inspire others through arts – not just in a joyous celebration of Latino culture but as a building block for an immigrant community that is often underprivileged and undervalued.

“When we are dancing, I teach them structure, I teach them how to think fast, I teach them how to get over something that didn’t work as planned, how to be resourceful,” she says. “If you really think positively and you find ways to make things better, you can do it – everybody can do it.”

Why We Wrote This

Grief can be a powerful tool for growth, as Veronica Robles demonstrates. The mariachi singer channeled the loss of her daughter into the creation of a cultural center that fortifies Boston’s immigrant community.

On a recent Monday evening at the Veronica Robles Cultural Center in East Boston, a group of 10 children practices circle dances for Día de los Muertos, the Mexican holiday that honors deceased friends and family. The girls hold out the edges of their long, black skirts, trimmed in green and orange, like sails as they stomp to the beat. In their midst is Veronica Robles herself – smiling and encouraging the tiniest timid dancer. 

Afterward Ms. Robles asks what they’ve learned. “Don’t break the circle,” comes one answer. “Don’t stop dancing, even if you don’t know what you are doing,” comes another.

They are the very lessons Ms. Robles had to learn herself, at the lowest time in her life after the death of her only child and then, two years later, a cancer diagnosis. Now the founder and director of the cultural center that bears her name leans in on her own resilience to uplift and inspire others through arts – not just in a joyous celebration of Latino culture but as a building block for an immigrant community that is often underprivileged and undervalued.

Why We Wrote This

Grief can be a powerful tool for growth, as Veronica Robles demonstrates. The mariachi singer channeled the loss of her daughter into the creation of a cultural center that fortifies Boston’s immigrant community.

“When we are dancing, I teach them structure, I teach them how to think fast, I teach them how to get over something that didn’t work as planned, how to be resourceful,” she says. “If you really think positively and you find ways to make things better, you can do it – everybody can do it.”

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Veronica Robles lets a young dancer use her skirt in a folkloric dance class at her cultural center in East Boston.

The Veronica Robles Cultural Center, which opened in 2013, today offers classes and events that draw more than 5,000 people each year. Ms. Robles also leads New England’s first all-female mariachi band, provides small grants to developing artists of color, and hosts a weekly arts radio show, all the while continuously performing in Spanish and English. Her efforts have drawn local and international accolades. 

“Veronica is consistent, and ... she can cross all kinds of lines unapologetically and capture all different kinds of audiences, which is just rare,” says Catherine Morris, director of arts and culture for The Boston Foundation, which awarded Ms. Robles $15,000 in 2018 to establish her all-female band.

Ms. Robles points to her grandmother, “Mama Coco,” as the force behind her international success as a mariachi singer. It was Mama Coco who taught her traditional Mexican songs and pushed her to join a band looking for a substitute singer in her native Mexico City. The teenage Ms. Robles was an almost instant hit, discovering she had a knack for connecting with audiences and drawing them into a circle of joy and warmth that is evident at any of her performances.

Ms. Robles began traveling internationally and met her husband, Willy Lopez, a music producer from Peru, in New York City in 1993. The couple settled near Boston and helped to create arts programming across the city, laying the foundation for the center.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Ms. Robles (in red sombrero) performs with her all-female mariachi quartet at the 2021 Boston University Global Music Festival in Boston, Sept. 18.

Despite its broad reach today, the cultural center almost didn’t happen. What it took was a profound period of personal loss and grief after the death of her daughter, Kithzia, in 2008.  

“When we lost her, I just didn’t want to do anything else. I didn’t want to go back to anything. I was very depressed,” says Ms. Robles. But one day she forced herself to keep a school performance on her schedule. As part of the act, she randomly selected a boy from the audience to dance on stage. Afterward he came backstage to thank her and asked if he could give her a hug.

“It was a sign to me that I must keep doing what I do,” recalls Ms. Robles. His teacher later told her the boy was going through a hard time at home and how much that interaction meant. “I said, Veronica, you know what? You are probably not as important as other people, but you might be important to someone. I need to continue doing this in the spirit of my daughter, in memory of her [and to see] her in all these children.”

The center has since become a refuge for those who teach and learn inside its walls. “It is everybody’s cultural center,” explains Sonia Castillo, who teaches weekly Chilean dance classes. “We all have access to the center to practice. We trust each other. We help each other. We take care of the center like it is our own home.”

In April 2020, as the implications of the pandemic became clearer, the center unexpectedly found a new purpose as a community resilience hub – first distributing meals donated by local restaurants, later serving as a vaccination site, and then resuming its classes and performances on Zoom to keep people connected during long days of isolation. Ms. Robles was the engine behind it, says Ms. Castillo. “Veronica did all of that day and night, and I don’t know how she slept.”

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Masks made by students decorate the Veronica Robles Cultural Center. A Puerto Rican artist taught the children how to make these mini vejigantes, clown-like creatures portrayed in Puerto Rican carnival celebrations.

The center has grown as the city around it has changed. If Boston was once better known for its sports championships, Irish American politicians, and Revolutionary War re-enactors, in the past 20 years it has become a minority-majority city. Nearly 19% of the city’s population identifies as Hispanic or Latino. In the East Boston neighborhood, 58% of the population identifies as Hispanic or Latino.   

“I saw an opportunity not only to help my community, but also to show the other faces of Latin America ... not changing people’s minds, but conquering their hearts through the colors and sounds of our beautiful Latin American culture,” says Ms. Robles, whose space is decorated with brightly painted masks and flags of Central and South America.

That makes her an ambassador of sorts to the wider community. “When you think about Boston being a melting pot, the more exposure we have to all these different cultures, the more enlightened and tolerant we will be of celebrating other people’s holidays and traditions,” says Robin Baker, the associate director of community engagement for the Celebrity Series of Boston, which has featured Ms. Robles and her mariachi band. “We just love her charisma and the way she connects with the audience. She gets them to get up and move.” 

It also makes her a key figure for the immigrant community. For the past three years, Claudia Basulto, who was born in Mexico but moved to East Boston with her family when she was 5, has watched her 9-year-old daughter, Valentina, blossom from a shy girl to one who radiates confidence through Ms. Robles’ dance classes. “I wish that there was something like this growing up in the ’90s,” says Ms. Basulto, who is helping to organize the center’s eighth annual Día de los Muertos celebration on Oct. 30.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Ms. Robles (in red) poses with members of her all-female mariachi quartet, (in black, from left) Bengisu Gokce, Cassandra McDonald, and Nicole Edgecomb, after performing at the 2021 Boston University Global Music Festival in Boston.

For Ms. Robles, being an internationally known mariachi performer was never the goal, she explains. “I thought that I had more responsibility not only to bring joy, but also to make sure that people know about the important things in life, which is love each other, help each other, support each other.” 

Those values seem to be her most consistent message. During the Boston University Global Music Festival this fall, her band just finishes their final song when a small girl wearing a brightly striped dress with a cascade of dark curls down her back darts up to the stage. She shyly offers Ms. Robles a single daisy. Without hesitating, Ms. Robles, vibrant in a bright red mariachi outfit, swoops down and embraces the girl beneath her broad hat.

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