Before April of this year, Los Angeles’ many mariachi groups were thriving. Spring is a good time for gigs and the preamble to the wedding and graduation-filled summer.
“Before this, people were super happy and excited,” said Joel Jacques, director of Mariachi Los Criollos de Guadalajara, “but then COVID started.”
Boyle Heights’ momentarily silent Mariachi Plaza may be the epicenter of Los Angeles' mariachi scene, but mariachi, of course, goes way back. In what is almost a study in creativity and adaptation, mariachi music was a result of the fortuitous mixing of indigenous and Spanish music starting in the 1700s, when Mexico was still under Spanish rule, primarily in Jalisco, Colima, Michoacán, Zacatecas, Guanajuato and Nayarit.
The invention and adoption of the guitarrón (meaning large guitar) — the equivalent of the bass in mariachi — in the 17th century was key in the development of mariachi music’s first iteration.
Mariachi music remained in relative obscurity from the rest of the country, only finding an audience in rural and Indigenous populations. Inexplicably, aristocrats snubbed their noses at the art for almost 200 years until mariachi groups from Cocula and Tecatitlán (another historic cradle of mariachi in Jalisco) made their way to Mexico City at the end of the 19th century and found widespread success. Mexican elites relegated it as inferior until then-president Porfirio Díaz deemed a mariachi group worthy of playing at his birthday party in 1905. One can only imagine how those snotty folks felt when they realized what they had been missing.
Since then, mariachi music has only grown in popularity. UNESCO even named it a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity in 2011.
As Joel Jacques, director of Mariachi Los Criollos de Guadalajara, put it, "Mexican music is culture, art and feeling. There's no better way to tell a woman you love her than by serenading her, and even more with mariachi, singing some beautiful songs for her like Pedro Infante's 'Amorcito Corazón.’ These are very happy songs, and beautiful too!”
Much was written about the plight of mariachis at the start of the stay-at-home order. One would be forgiven for thinking that in the face of such terrible odds, the mariachis at plazas, banquet halls and restaurants simply sighed, packed up their instruments and let the county go silent. But they didn’t. Like their musical ancestors, the Coca people of Cocula, Jalisco, they got creative.
“If we don’t adapt how we do things, they disappear,” Jacques said.
Like many other entertainers, some mariachi groups have gone virtual, making customized videos for clients near and far.
Carlos Samaniego, Director of Mariachi Arcoiris de Los Angeles (the World's First LGBTQ Mariachi), said that although most of the events he played at normally, like weddings and quinceañeras, got canceled, many of the Pride events he was supposed to play at have gone virtual. For example, Mariachi Arcoiris de Los Angeles recorded a Lucha Villa potpourri for a virtual queerceañera recently.
“It really has hit the mariachi industry very, very hard …. [but] that’s one way we have stayed employed,” he said.
For Jacques, who clearly revels in playing for people, doing virtual performances has let him bring the love and joy of mariachi music to people who are far away from their loved ones. “I’ve had to do serenatas for people who ended up being long distance because of COVID,” Jacques said. “Even a woman from Chicago around a month ago hired me to sing to her mother virtually.”
It's also been an important business decision. He said mariachis who don't know how to work online end up being limited in the work they can do, and unfortunately, there are a lot of people in that position, he said. "This stuff changes every day, so if you don't try to update what you do, as we Mexicans say, te comen el mandado (they eat your groceries),” he said. “You need to stay updated, especially regarding platforms where you can promote yourself by uploading videos.”
Even though videos have been an unexpected and welcome source of income, Samaniego said they simply don’t come close to how the music sounds live. Erwin Vasquez, director of Mariachi Teocuitatlan, agreed and said many audiences are simply not interested in online performances. “It’s just the culture. People are used to coming up to ask for a song, getting close to us, singing,” Vasquez said. “That’s just how it is.”
“Of course, there are still things that continue to happen like birthdays … and all these things that people have continued to celebrate have continued, but differently,” Samaniego said. “Now you have these [drive-by] caravans, and everything has to be done with social distancing, which is great. I believe there’s some way to continue to celebrate and accomplish things like that, but it’s all done very differently.”
Now, when there are birthdays, people are brought out to driveways and mariachis play from the sidewalk. “I was lucky enough to be at a 100th birthday near Palos Verdes,” Jacques recalled. “Even the fire department and police departments drove by. It was like a parade for the man. And the man was sitting in his little garden, and we were playing on the sidewalk. You see some really beautiful things."
Mariachi Los Criollos de Guadalajara play outside at a socially distanced gathering. "When we have to go to a house, we stand, and the clients sit far away. We wear the mask and only remove it to sing to you," Jacques said.
Samaniego is taking a break from playing in person for at least the next month to reduce the risk of infection and keep his clients safe. Before cases started to skyrocket again in July, he would only accept gigs that were held outside with enough room for appropriate social distancing, but he said many mariachi groups can’t afford to be picky.
Vasquez said he also recently decided to stop playing in person for the remainder of the month. "As we show up, our bills are paid. If we don't show up, they're not," he said. "It's tough. We are putting ourselves in the line of danger showing up to unknown homes where there's people that we just don't know where they've been," Vasquez said. "It's been a challenge, but it's not something I can control because people are paying for the luxury of us showing up. It comes down to us risking it for the happiness of someone else. Now it's time to take ourselves into consideration before our clients to try to stay safe."
Many mariachis are still out working gigs normally, so Samaniego said keeping tabs on the mariachi community on social media is a great way for mariachis to stay informed.
“It’s really helped because there are musicians who have been affected and are saying ‘please be cautious and wear your face mask while you’re at the gig. Please keep your distance,’” he said. “Just because the clients are having fun, and they’re drinking and not wearing face masks, don’t fall into that and don’t go inside the apartment or house, that’s not really a good idea.”
Samaniego said he was extra lucky; he was able to switch to online performances thanks to money he got from a grant that was only available to American citizens, which many mariachis are not. "I got that because fortunately I am a citizen and I can apply for these grants, but there are other people in the mariachi community who aren't legal residents or who may be undocumented who can't apply for these types of things, and so they're the ones that are suffering," he said. "A lot of them have lost their cars, or they're elderly and more susceptible to the coronavirus, so they're also not the most informed on how best to avoid it."
After about three months after the stay-at-home order was instated and after attempts to rehearse virtually, Samaniego set up a socially distanced rehearsal with plenty of precautionary measures, like temperature checks and hand sanitizer upon entry. "I wanted to make sure that everyone was safe, and I created this environment in order for us to be safe and rehearse. It was so satisfying musically and to our souls. Just to collaborate musically again was just so nice, and it was a treat to be able to do this."
Vasquez also pointed out that most, if not all, musicians live paycheck to paycheck or per gig. "There's times that musicians are waiting for a gig just so they can eat," he said.
To aid mariachis in these situations, Jacques said fellow mariachis established the Organización de Mariachis Independientes de Los Angeles California (OMILCAL) in mid-June. “That organization was created to help musicians who are older and unfortunately can’t go out to work because they are at a higher risk if they get infected [but] don’t you think it’s just for mariachis. For example, here in Mariachi Plaza in L.A., there have been trucks full to distribute milk and pantry items for musicians who can’t go out to work,” Jacques said. “A lot of families have been affected.”
Jacques continued, “Thank God, because of tech I have work, but people who don’t have that knowledge, one way or another we need to help them because like we say in Mexico, como te ves, me ví, jóven una vez (as you see yourself, I saw myself, young) y como me ves, te verás (as you see me, you’ll see yourself). We need to be conscious of the fact that we’re all going to get to that age and be proactive, smart and empathetic of others.”
There are many ways to help the mariachi community. Samaniego suggested donating to your favorite mariachi or to arts organizations as well as buying their merchandise. “On our website, we sell our CDs, our posters, our t-shirts, our baseball caps, even our moño. People love our rainbow moño, and now I put them up for sale on our website," he said. "We have face masks too."
Besides donating to local charities and being cautious to slow the spread of the virus, Vasquez, Jacques and Samaniego agreed that a great way to help the mariachi community is by hiring a mariachi group for a virtual or in-person performance. “I want them to know that we are active and available for their events, keeping safety top of mind, Jacques said.
Samaniego said mariachi groups are also especially flexible right now. “If you want to celebrate something, hire a mariachi. If you can’t afford much, ask for a small group, and people are really willing to accommodate.”
Vasquez said he hopes when things clear up a bit more, people will think of musicians, mariachis and entertainers and hire them more often. "We're a small business, and we're in a time that small businesses need to be supported, but it's tough to ask for help because there's really no other way people can really help us than to hire us," he said. "We hope that when things get normal, we're busy with work and can continue to make people happy."
Jacques summed it up. "It's so hard to make a living, and more so now with COVID, but … we've never let ourselves fall down, and we need to lend a hand now more than ever to face the changes and adapt together. Let's stay positive that this will be solved, thank god we have life and let's enjoy it with some good mariachi music. Que viva la música Mexicana y que viva el mariachi!”
So, if you’re thinking of just calling your amorcito corazón just to say, “I love you,” maybe consider sending them some curbside mariachi instead.
Top Image: Joel Jacques of Mariachi Los Criollos de Guadalajara holds his guitarrón before a Los Angeles gig. | Courtesy of Joel Jacques