Raquel Ontiveros sashayed, stomped, twirled and threw her head back in full-throated performances of her throbbing mariachi music, with a 100-song repertoire and colorful costumes handmade in Mexico to represent each of its 31 states.
One of Chicago’s first female mariachi performers, Ms. Ontiveros died of cancer July 7 at the Chicago home of her sister, Victoria O. Tapia. She was 88.
A singer, dancer and choreographer, Ms. Ontiveros entered the scene in the 1940s.
“She was a pioneer in terms of bringing Mexican culture into the Chicago area,” said Jose “Pepe” Ovalle, president and artistic director of the Mexican Folkloric Dance Company of Chicago.
“She was one of the first dancers here in Chicago with a Mexican folkloric group,” said Henry Roa, 84, co-founder of that troupe.
She worked at Chicago’s 1959 Pan American Games, which brought together athletes from throughout the Americas — and gave her the chance to meet legendary funnyman Groucho Marx.
The 2006 Smithsonian Institution Folklife Festival included her interviews about Chicago’s Mexican music scene.
Ms. Ontiveros’ sister said that, in their family, “We were born with music in our blood.”
Their parents, Estella and Jose, were from the Mexican states of Guanajuato and Nuevo Leon. They always had music on the phonograph or the radio.
At home, the Ontiveros parents spoke only Spanish to keep their language alive with their nine girls and one boy. Jose Ontiveros, who worked at International Harvester, had ancestral roots in Jalisco, often described as the cradle of mariachi music.
Growing up near Roosevelt and Peoria Street, young Raquel went to St. Francis of Assisi grade school and St. Procopius High School, where she mastered typing, the Dictaphone and the squiggly Gregg shorthand that landed her a job as a secretary at the Union League Club. She worked there for more than 40 years.
Mariachi music was the soundtrack of her life.
“She would come home from work and rehearse her songs or listen to music,” her sister said.
Ms. Ontiveros performed with the group El Mariachi Jalisco alongside its leader, Arnulfo Martinez. Some of her favorite songs were “Besame Mucho,” “Mexico Lindo y Querido” and “Cielito Lindo.” She also organized a Mexican folkloric dance group, choreographing their numbers.
As a greeter at the 1959 Pan American Games, she saw “kind of a breakthrough for the Mexican community in Chicago,” said musicologist Juan Dies, a co-founder of the group Sones de Mexico. “She told me the games were important catalysts for the Latino community. They brought a lot of people to bring their culture and traditions into the mainstream.”
Dies interviewed her for a history of Chicago’s Mexican music, “Nuestra Musica.” Her memories were printed in a program of the 2006 Folklife Festival at the Smithsonian Museum.
“She had a beautiful personality, very perky and very animated and very optimistic,” he said.
Ms. Ontiveros performed at a national girl scouts conference in Chicago and at a 1968 medical convention.
In her family, she was a matriarch, warmly greeting everyone at gatherings of relatives while music played and delicious Mexican food was served. Often, she’d grab a mic or break into song.
“She was our style icon — the lessons that we learned from her and how she carried herself,” said her niece Monica Cisneros. “Everything we do, we put our best foot forward.”
And the more bling, the better.
“If it didn’t sparkle or jingle or have a sequin, it wasn’t good enough for her to wear,” Cisneros said.
At the Senior Suites where Ms. Ontiveros lived at 6045 W. Grand, she wouldn’t dream of going down to get her mail without being groomed.
“She would not leave without full makeup, eyebrows, eyelashes,” her niece said. “You would never catch her in a housecoat. She never wore slippers.”
“You didn’t leave the house without earrings in, lipstick, makeup on your face,” her sister said.
At her wake, “She did not want an open casket,” her niece said. “She never wanted anyone to see her not made up, or sick.”
Ms. Ontiveros enjoyed watching telenovelas and vacationing in Acapulco.
She is also survived by her son Robert; sisters Katy Gomez, Mona Gonzalez, Tina Huerta and Florence Ontiveros; six grandchildren, three great-grandchildren and many nieces, nephews and great-nieces and great-nephews. Her daughter Lydia House died before her. Services have been held.
At her wake at Chicago’s Richard Modell Funeral Home, the mourners were serenaded by a mariachi band.