Though he stood just under 5 feet tall, musician Gabriel Zavala’s personality towered over every stage, pulling in audiences with his energy and compelling knack for storytelling – both in music and life. 

“He came into the door, and he’s a petite man, but the energy and the light that he comes in with fills the room. You know, his smile, his drive, his charisma, the light in his eye,” said Sara Guerrero, writer and director of “Canto de Anaheim,” a tribute play about Anaheim featuring Zavala’s original compositions. 

Zavala was a self-taught musician who delivered the power of mariachi music and culture to generations of children in Orange County. Students who couldn’t pluck a single chord eventually went on to pursue professional careers in music because of his guidance. 

“When you come across a personality that powerful, it really, truly transcends many, many barriers,” said Esbeyde Sanchez, a former student of Zavala’s who now performs in a professional mariachi group with her siblings, Los Sanchez Mariachi Quartet of Anaheim.

“He really helped many generations know and understand and appreciate and love the roots of our culture,” Sanchez added.

On Feb. 26, Zavala died at 76 from complications of COVID-19. His son, Oliver Zavala, announced his father’s death on Facebook, where an outpouring of over 350 people sent condolences and reminiscences of the maestro. 

Sharing a space with 10 siblings, Gabriel Zavala grew up in Mexico without any running water, no electricity and a shelter made of rocks bashed with mud and a dirt floor, Oliver Zavala said. 

Zavala sold papers, gum, and shined shoes – among various other jobs – to help make money for his family at just 9 years old, his son said. 

“I think a lot of his desire to work with children, and particularly with mariachi, is because of that,” Oliver Zavala said. “He didn’t have a childhood, so he felt like, you know, he can play with the kids and make them laugh. But he was also very strict.” 

In 1964, Gabriel Zavala went to the U.S. to become a rock star. But that dream quickly faded after finding a new passion for mariachi – and the culture behind it. 

Zavala started in Anaheim, forming Los Siete Hermanos Zavalas with all six of his brothers. The group enjoyed local stardom over the next decade, as one of the only mariachi groups in Orange County at the time.

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Eventually, Zavala moved away from performing for fame and instead devoted his life to teaching. 

In 1996, he started a nonprofit called RHYTHMO Mariachi Academy, an artistic outlet for thousands of children in Orange County, according to Oliver Zavala, who has helped his father run the organization. 

Gabriel Zavala didn’t just run through chords at his academy, but told the stories behind the music. He taught his students about each song’s composers and writers, as well as their historical and cultural context.

Though Zavala’s teaching style was strict and blunt, it never overshadowed his love and passion. He pushed his students, always saying, “I’ll never give up on you, if you don’t give up on me,” Oliver Zavala said.  

Gabriel Zavala encouraged students to nurture their talents, and his words surpassed music. These were lessons that the students would carry for the rest of their lives, said Marina Ramirez, an eighth grader who has been performing with the maestro since third grade.  

“He always wanted us to, like, try hard. Even though we didn’t believe in ourselves, he was still telling us, ‘You can do it, you can do it.’ With him telling us that, we would do it and we would succeed.”

Marina Ramirez, an eighth grader who has been performing with the maestro since third grade

She continued, “He really helped me to become a stronger person and, like, persevere (through) more things in life.”

For some students, music was a side activity; but for others it was the first step toward the possibility of a different path in life. 

Roman Zavala, a student and nephew of Gabriel Zavala, tried learning several instruments to no avail. During every lesson, Roman’s uncle pushed him, trying to unleash his untapped potential.

One day, instead of attending practice, Roman opted to hang out with some friends who were known to hang out with a nearby gang in Anaheim. Gabriel Zavala got a hold of his nephew, forcing him to come to practice – and he did, Oliver Zavala said. 

That same night, Roman’s friends, whom he was supposed to be with, were in front of a liquor store when one of them was shot and killed, Oliver Zavala said. 

“That’s where he was, that’s where he was going to be. And so you know, did we save his life?  I like to think so,” he said. 

Today, Roman is performing mariachi music professionally.

After hearing about his uncle’s death, Roman showed up at Oliver Zavala’s house immediately and threw his arms around him in tears. 

“(Roman) said, ‘I knew I didn’t have any talent. I knew I couldn’t do it. Everybody was laughing at me … I just wanted to quit, I didn’t want to do it anymore. But your dad didn’t let me. Your dad was the first person who never gave up on me, and I’m so grateful,’” Oliver Zavala said. 

In honor of his father, Oliver Zavala says he’ll keep the maestro’s legacy alive by continuing to run the RHYTHMO Mariachi Academy.

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As the pandemic has forced many organizations to temporarily close their doors, RHYTHMO Mariachi Academy is struggling to keep its space. The program is in $2,000 debt from rent, barely bringing in $800 every month, Oliver Zavala said. 

Although the landlord has worked with Oliver to lower the rent to $1,000, it’s still difficult to come up with the money each month. 

Oliver Zavala currently has a GoFundMe campaign for donations to help get the program up and running again. The money will pay for monthly expenses, instructors and other operational costs to reopen. 

Gabriel Zavala’s impact transcends generations, say those who knew him, adding that his legacy lives on not only through the program, but through every individual who learned his or her talents at the hands of the maestro.

“My dad made our childhood so special, with the way that he was and his stories, and his smile and his optimism,” Oliver Zavala said. 

He added: “We didn’t know we were poor, we just were happy with what we had. And I guess that’s one of my biggest things that he taught me, you know, be happy with what you have.”

Kristina Garcia is a writing fellow for Voice of OC Arts & Culture. She can be reached at kristinamgarcia6@gmail.com.

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