José Iñiguez didn’t grow up listening to opera. In fact, he grew up listening to his father wake everyone up with mariachi songs on his way to the orchards of Eastern Washington. But for the tenor, growing up in a Latino farmworker family is in fact the very reason for why he’s now finding fame: bringing opera arias and mariachi boleros together in concert, and helping young people bridge cultural gaps and achieve their goals.
He will headline the Broadway Center’s annual “Fiesta, Familia, Folklore” music and dance event in the Pantages Saturday.
Iñiguez’ resume reads quite differently before and after around 2013. One of 11 kids, he grew up in a Mexican migrant farmworker family in Mattawa, just east of the Columbia River. He sang in the high school choir, and studied music at Central Washington University before finishing with an online business degree. He worked in the travel industry. Then, after a few years of singing lessons, he gave a West Seattle concert that combined Italian arias with Mexican boleros. Since then, he’s performed at such venues as Benaroya Hall, Central Washington University and The Seasons in Yakima. He’s sung at galas and wineries, released his debut CD “Encanto Live” and has a Moore Theater gig and KCTS documentary coming up later this year.
José Iñiguez has a really fine voice, with all the potential to be an opera star.
James Brown, vocal chair at Pacific Lutheran University
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Iñiguez “has a really fine voice, with all the potential to be an opera star,” says James Brown, tenor and chair of vocal studies at Pacific Lutheran University. “The mariachi school of singing is close in timbre to the full-throated, Italianate school of opera singing.”
But Iñiguez also sings at places like Wenatchee High School and Hispanic fundraisers in Spokane, approaching businesses to sponsor free youth tickets — because he realizes he’s not just a singer with an interesting repertoire. He’s a cultural ambassador who can bridge the gap between Latino and white culture, rich and poor, and encourage young people to dream big.
At “Fiesta, Familia, Folklore,” he’ll share the stage with groups like Mariachi Huenachi, the Wenatchee High School ensemble that has toured the state and worked to overcome issues of race and poverty, and Bailadores de Bronce, a Seattle folkloric dance group.
Iñiguez talked to The News Tribune on the phone about music, opportunity and following your passion.
Q: Growing up, how did you get started in singing?
A: My dad was a farmworker. He would use music, singing, to motivate himself — to get up, to go to work. Especially mariachi. He had a pretty good voice; loud, too. It would wake you up. That’s where I got my (vocal) power from, I think …
Q: Did you grow up with opera?
A: At around 13 or 14, I knew I loved opera. PBS really introduced me to it — I discovered it myself just switching channels. I would watch an aria, a song from “Les Miserables,” and think, “Wow, I could do this. I would like to do this.” It spurred me to go into choir, to be a part of it. At the time I liked it but I didn’t know I could perform it. The problem as a teenager was that we were very focused on sports and working in the fields. Every time I would sing I would shake; people would laugh at me. It’s just part of learning how to sing, knowing your body, breathing, but I didn’t know all that until I went into music school and had a private coach.
It wasn’t until my senior year when I entered a vocal contest. I actually performed that song ‘Bring Them Home’ from “Les Miserables” — and I got feedback from a judge, someone who didn’t know me. He told me, “Man, you have something.” From there I went to study music at CWU.
Q: Did opera and mariachi seem connected to you, back then?
A: Unfortunately, I saw the difference racially and economically. … In the town I lived in, it was Mexican and white people. I didn’t go into my white friends’ homes, so there was already some inferiority. They were honest about it, saying “Hey, we can only play with you outside.” That’s just what happens. But then they started pushing the envelope with their parents, and I think that’s why we’re becoming more diverse, because of kids. So I would get closer and closer, I would see how they lived, what music they listened to. In high school, I finally gained their trust and began to live biculturally. Part of the reason why is that I was good at sports (football and basketball), and I was friendly and had a positive attitude. I didn’t let racial comments get to me. So I would go into people’s homes who did listen to opera, who took piano lessons. (Our family) didn’t have that kind of money to take lessons. So I began to see (the difference between classical and mariachi) as economic, something folks do when they have more money.
I began to see (the difference between classical and mariachi) as economic, something folks do when they have more money.
Jose Iñiguez, tenor
Q: What was your family’s reaction to all this?
A: Me and my dad did not have the best relationship as father and son. He always thought I was different from his other kids: I had long hair, friends of all types. He would never go to a choir performance. I couldn’t even share the vocal contest with him; he didn’t approve of me studying music. He wanted me to study business, law, whatever. We had a lot of conflicts. Luckily I have a forward-thinking sort of personality, so I would move on. But that developed something in me to create friendships … I wanted to find a commonality between people.
After four years of music study I thought that my dad was right. I left school for four more years, and ended up … finishing with a business management career. When I finished, I started to cry — it was the only time I’d heard my dad say he was proud of me.
Q: So how did you get back into singing?
A: I was working in travel sales, but I knew that my passion was music. So I went back to studying singing with a private coach. Two years ago he said to me, “You can only practice for so long. What are you going to do?” That inspired me. I started off with a recital at my church for family and friends. There were people there who didn’t even know I could sing. And the reaction was, “Oh my gosh, there’s something there. You need to pursue it.”
Q: Tell us about when you do concerts back home in eastern Washington.
A: I always think, How do I affect a community? A concert does one thing for a few hours. What can I do to find kids that look like me and might not have the support, like with me and my father? So I go a week prior to the concert and … speak to the students. I tell them how I grew up working in the orchards … my circumstances growing up, how I overcame those. …
At the end, my goal is for people to just value the music. We need to make sure this music keeps going. That’s where growing up multiculturally has helped me. I see the gaps.
Q: What will you be singing at the Pantages event?
A: Arias in French, English, Italian, from “Carmen,” “The Student Prince,” “Pagliacci,” “Caro Mio Ben.” My pianist will play an instrumental piece, classical. Then boleros, with piano, guitar and two violins. I’m trying to take the stuffiness a little out of (classical music), where the crowd can engage and clap whenever they want to.
Q: You’ve sung in Europe and Mexico. What are the reactions there to your combination of opera and bolero?
A: It’s interesting. In Vienna— actually it was a Danube (River) cruise — I had people telling me they cried. I realized why. Being in the travel industry, I get to see what people are yearning for. They travel because they want to learn, to open up to things. When I perform arias and boleros, for them it was something new.
In Guadalajara, that’s such a cultural city it was embraced immediately. Folks didn’t believe I was Mexican, because I have an American accent. It allowed them to open up and realize that Mexicans who go up north … that it doesn’t matter.
It really does not matter where we come from. It matters that we’re doing what we love.
Jose Iñiguez, tenor
It has made me grow as a person. It really does not matter where we come from. It matters that we’re doing what we love.
And people are starting to notice. When I sang at Benaroya last November, it was a big audience of people who always go to the symphony, to the opera. It just felt that I’d arrived. I didn’t feel nervous. I just felt right, that I belonged.
Fiesta, Familia, Folklore
What: This is the third annual celebration of Mexican music and culture.
Who: Among the scheduled performers are tenor José Iñiguez, Mariachi Huenachi and the dance group Bailadores de Bronce.
When: 3 p.m. Saturday.
Where: Rialto Theater, 901 Broadway, Tacoma.
Information: 253-591-5894, broadwaycenter.org.