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Mariachi Music for the Soul

Mariachi procession for Saint Cecilia in Boyle Heights (featured)
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Mariachi Internacional Varas Nayarit
Mariachi Internacional Varas Nayarit arrive at the location of their gig. | Photo: Matt Stromberg

For decades, Boyle Height’s Mariachi Plaza has been the center of L.A.’s mariachi community, where, every weekend, throngs of musicians gather to socialize, swap stories, and most importantly, find work. Dressed in their crisp, black cowboy-style charro suits, the mariachis wait for customers to drive up, and they’ll negotiate a price and the number of hours they’ll play, before heading off to perform for a birthday, baptism, wedding, or quinceañera. Once the gig is over, they may return to the plaza to repeat the process. 

I had heard various anecdotes about the itinerant life of the street mariachi, which differs from that of stage mariachis, who generally perform regularly at restaurants or musical venues. Since chamba (“gig”) groups were often paid in cash, musicians were sometimes targeted, having to remain vigilant as they walked swiftly to their cars after they finished playing. One mariachi told me of a customer who he suspected of being a narco, picking him up in a luxury SUV, giving each member of his band a charro suit with a specific color to wear. You never know where you’re going or whom you’re going to be playing for, or even with, as bands are sometimes assembled on the spot. Drawn to these compelling tales, I convinced a mariachi group, Mariachi Internacional Varas Nayarit, to let me tag along for their Saturday shows.

Although many mariachis will assemble at the plaza to get gigs, it is just as common for a bandleader — often referred to as a caimán — to arrange bookings in advance.

Mariachi Plaza kiosk in Boyle Heights
View from the kiosk at Mariachi Plaza in Boyle Heights.  | Photo: throgers/Flickr/Creative Commons

Caimán is a derogatory way of saying they take advantage of the money,” says Luis Molina, a mariachi and filmmaker who used to lead his own group. “But they take responsibility for the contract, the gasoline, the advertisements. Sometimes I made less than my musicians.” Sometimes they will have a full band already, other times, they will need to pick up a few musicians at the plaza. Even if they don’t need additional mariachis, bands often meet at the plaza so they can carpool and save money on gas and parking. This also prevents gigs from being stolen, as the caimán doesn’t always share an address in advance, though one mariachi I spoke with said anyone who attempted to take a gig for oneself would quickly get blacklisted.

I had arranged to meet Cuco Peña — also known as “Varas,” the Mexican city where he hails from — and his band at the plaza at 4 p.m. This included his son Luis on trumpet, another trumpeter named Alberto, and David Kilpatrick, a tall, white-haired ethnomusicologist who began playing mariachi music in 1964, on the bass-like guitarrón. Unfortunately, the violin player was a no-show. It was already late in the day and the few mariachis milling about the plaza already had gigs. That was going to be a problem since the customer would be expecting five musicians. Kilpatrick left a frantic message for his partner Andrea Martinez to see if she could fill in on guitar. We waited for a few minutes for any latecomers and then headed out for their first scheduled party in Baldwin Park, 20 miles to the east.

Mariachi Internacional Varas Nayarit
Mariachi Internacional Varas Nayarit arrive at the location of their gig. | Photo: Matt Stromberg

Once we arrived on the bucolic, tree-lined street, the group poured out of the van, tuned their instruments and adjusted their deep scarlet moños, the classic mariachi bow-tie, each embroidered with the band’s name, except for Peña’s which bore his own. The party’s host welcomed us, and led us to the backyard, where family and friends were celebrating his elderly mother’s birthday. Wasting no time, the group began playing “Las Mañanitas,” the popular Mexican birthday song, as they strode in. Dozens of guests seated at folding tables applauded their arrival. The band set up across from the seated matriarch as a line formed for those in attendance to pay their respects. Guests showered her with hugs and birthday wishes. This was a far cry from the stories of narcos that I had been told. 

Not one attendee batted an eyelash at the stranger standing in the corner scribbling notes and taking pictures. Quite the contrary, I was welcomed with open arms, generously offered food and beer and made to feel very much at home. After a few songs, Martinez showed up, grabbed her guitar, and jumped right in. Mariachis must be familiar with hundreds of songs, so even if they’ve never rehearsed together, they are able to play in sync with just the mention of a song title or the strum of a few chords. She provided a worthy foil to Peña’s masculine showmanship and rich baritone, singling out audience members and passionately singing to them.

Mariachi Internacional Varas Nayarit
Mariachi Internacional Varas Nayarit perform at a birthday party. | Photo: Matt Stromberg

Although mariachis have traditionally been men, women are increasingly present in the community, both in co-ed groups and all-female ensembles. “It's very rare that we've had clients not wanting women. In 20 years plus [of playing], I've only had two times that a customer didn't want a girl,” said Beatriz Martinez, a former student of Kilpatrick’s who often performs with her husband Eduardo. “Now people request women, at least one to sing.”

As the evening wore on, a group of men took turns singing their favorite songs as the band backed them up. Then, after two hours, the host thanked Peña and paid him; the group packed up and hopped back in the van.

Mariachi Internacional Varas Nayarit
Mariachi Internacional Varas Nayarit perform at a birthday party. | Photo: Matt Stromberg

The origins of mariachi music can be traced back to the Spanish colonial era in the state of Jalisco. Although different cities have laid claim to its birthplace, Guadalajara is widely regarded as its home. The word mariachi was previously thought to be a derivation of the French word mariage, reflecting the French influence of the 1860s, however, it actually predates this period. More likely, its roots are indigenous, perhaps from the Cora Indian word for the kind of wood used to make a dancing platform.

Despite its regional origin, it is a truly pan-Mexican phenomenon, fusing European, African, and indigenous musical elements. 

“You see, for every Mexican, and I mean every Mexican, whether you live in Mexico or not,” notes Evangeline Ordaz-Molina in the introduction to the book “Hotel Mariachi,” “mariachi music is no less than the cry of the soul.”

In addition to embodying a sense of Mexican identity, mariachi as a way of life also reflects pride in oneself and in the craft. 

“When we were in high school,” Beatriz Martinez said of her early training, “we could never take off our moños, our chamarras [jackets]. We had to be really clean cut. You respect your suit.”

Mariachi Internacional Varas Nayarit
Mariachi Internacional Varas Nayarit perform at a birthday party. | Photo: Matt Stromberg

After leaving Baldwin Park, we headed back west to the Wyvernwood Garden Apartments, not far from Mariachi Plaza, where we started. Here was another birthday party set up in the front yard of a home, this time for an octogenarian matriarch of a family from Los Altos de Jalisco, located in the highlands east of Guadalajara. This was a more intimate affair than the earlier party, with what seemed like a smaller group of close family members. The group again entered playing “Las Mañanitas,” before breaking into “Tres Regalos,” a romantic bolero in which the singer promises his lover three gifts: the sky, the moon, and the sea, in exchange for a smile. At one point, the plaintive wail of a trumpet could be heard coming from behind the house, and I noticed Luis was missing. As this distant sound grew closer, it was met by a line from Alberto’s trumpet in a kind of call-and-response, until Luis had once again joined the group. This was a theatrical rendition of “El Niño Perdido” or “The Lost Child.” And after the set, tequila was broken out, cups passed around, and toasts made before Peña settled up once more and the group drove off into the night. The next day, they would likely play a church mass in the morning before doing it all over again.

At a time when virtual entertainment is on the rise, what's the appeal of live mariachi music, which seems to cut through differences in age, regional origins, and socio-economic backgrounds? I asked several guests at both parties why they chose to hire a mariachi band; what was so special about these five musicians that they had most likely never heard before? After all, they’re not cheap, with each musician earning roughly $50 an hour and the caimán, double that. The host of the first party, who had moved to the U.S. from Guanajato almost 40 years ago, gave me a succinct and straightforward answer to what must have seemed like a most obvious question to him. “Because I’m Mexican,” he replied with a smile.

Top image: A procession of mariachi's perform along the streets of Boyle Heights during the annual Feast Day of St. Cecilia, patron saint of music, November 24, 09. Following the procession, a mass was held, food was served, and mariachi's performed at Mariachi Plaza. | Photo: Barbara Davidson/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

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