Mingled with the sounds of year-round fireworks and blaring ice cream trucks, mariachi music sometimes fills Los Angeles’s Eastside. In the first weeks of the state lockdown prompted by COVID-19, some Angelenos were willing to hire a mariachi band to come to their homes and perform at a distance. But as the coronavirus pandemic has persisted, few of these artists are finding work, putting them at risk of financial ruin.
“Our home, we own it, but we still have to pay our bills,” said Aurelio Reyes, a mariachi musician for 20 years and a singer for 40. “We’ve basically lost about 75% of our income.”
Before the state lockdown began in mid-March, Reyes had contracts to perform at weddings, quinceañeras, birthday parties and for the tequila brand Jose Cuervo. But coronavirus led to the cancellations of these events.
To raise awareness about the plight of the city’s mariachi musicians during the pandemic, Reyes performed during a fundraiser for these artists organized by the Community Power Collective (CPC), which fights for low-income residents to obtain economic and housing justice. The advocacy group hopes to raise at least $50,000 for an emergency relief fund for mariachis in financial distress but has raised just over $8,800 so far. The organization has also received a $50,000 grant from the United Way of Greater Los Angeles that it uses to help the mariachi community. CPC concentrates its efforts in Boyle Heights, where musicians congregate at Mariachi Plaza seeking work to present the art form described as a "version of Spanish theatrical orchestra.” Mariachi ensembles may include violinists, guitarists, harpists, trumpeters and singers.
“They rely on work for hire,” Carmina Calderon, a CPC community organizer, said of the musicians who gather at Mariachi Plaza. “They hang out in the plaza and wait for folks to come up to them or drive up and tell them, ‘Hey, I have a party on Saturday. We'll pay you.’ That's how they would get contracted for events.”
She notes that this is similar to how many mariachi musicians in Mexico have traditionally found work. In fact, the Boyle Heights plaza resembles those in Mexico, Calderon said. But the work-for-hire arrangement has put them at an economic disadvantage now that the gigs have dried up.
“Last time I worked officially was in March,” said Reyes, who started his music career as a norteño performer with a group called Los Lobos de la Frontera. Unlike norteño, which originated in northern Mexico, mariachi music originated in western Mexico as far back as the 1700s.
For Mother’s Day and Father’s Day, Reyes did accept some requests to perform, but it wasn’t enough to get him on solid financial footing again.
“We maintained distancing and didn’t get close to folks,” he explained. “We used our masks, except, of course, for the singers and trumpet players.”
Unlike in previous years, when he was booked to perform all day, Reyes only managed to land gigs for short performances, which means a smaller paycheck. While he has received a stimulus check from the federal government, it wasn’t substantial enough to get him back in the black financially.
José Hernàndez, founder of the Mariachi Heritage Society, said he’s been more fortunate than artists like Reyes because his Mariachi Sol de Mexico ensemble toured heavily across the United States and Latin America before COVID-19, giving him financial security. He also qualifies for unemployment insurance and has taught online music workshops during the pandemic, but he knows how dire circumstances are for his work-for-hire counterparts.
“They fall through the cracks because they've always worked, most of the time, with cash,” he said. “So, they really can't depend on unemployment insurance. For a lot of guys who work for hire, their income is not really reported, and it's really tough for them now.”
Affording housing during this time is a definite challenge. Reyes is a homeowner, but mariachi musicians who rent say landlords have threatened to kick them out of their homes, according to Calderon. On March 23, L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti issued a temporary moratorium on evictions for nonpayment of rent, but that hasn’t stopped landlords, particularly in Black and Latinx neighborhoods, from demanding rent and threatening to displace residents.
Evelyn Garcia, director of economic mobility for United Way of Greater Los Angeles, said members of the immigrant community might be more likely to face eviction. Specifically, undocumented Angelenos lack access to social services and may be too scared to challenge their landlords.
“Even though there is an eviction moratorium, a lot of workers in the shadows, a lot of undocumented workers, don’t have a conventional landlord arrangement,” Garcia said. “They might be living in garages that aren't necessarily supposed to be an apartment. So, these workers might be afraid to advocate for themselves.”
Fighting housing insecurity and homelessness is a priority for United Way L.A, Garcia explained. It has provided approximately $700,000 to more than 20 community groups, including CPC, to help workers — street vendors, restaurant workers, mariachi musicians — cut off from the government's social safety net. Garcia said it's important that these groups avoid borrowing from predatory lenders to survive because the high interest rates they'll receive will hurt their ability to recover financially.
For Calderon, helping vulnerable workers stay in their homes before they're evicted is key. "We've been trying to equip tenants to read letters to their landlord, showing that they're taking a proactive approach to paying for rent," she said. "At this point, I know that you can't [technically] get evicted, but that doesn't mean that landlords aren't still submitting eviction paperwork for the courts. We know that the landlord cannot evict you on their own; they need the court and the sheriff, and, for now, the courts are closed."
But she fears that, before long, cash-strapped tenants will have thousands of dollars of back rent they can’t afford to pay. CPC’s goal is to raise enough money to cover some rental expenses for mariachi musicians. They are “part of the cultural fabric of Boyle Heights and Los Angeles and California, for that matter,” Calderon said. “And they need help right now.”
Hernàndez said that it especially breaks his heart that undocumented immigrants struggle to get the resources they need when they "pay into the system but don't see any money coming back" to them. By some estimates, undocumented immigrants pay billions of dollars in taxes annually because many file taxes and also have taxes deducted from their paychecks.
Mariachi musicians, no matter their immigration status, are hurting right now. Reyes, for one, has given up on trying to get unemployment benefits, saying there was too much red tape for "someone who is basically self-employed." He knows that mariachis are far from the only workers struggling to make ends meet but asks those who are fortunate enough to still have jobs to consider contributing to the mariachi relief fund.
He adds that policymakers can help as well. “We hope that there is an easier way for our voices to be heard and supported, like the cancelation of rents and mortgages, so that we can focus on taking care of our families.”
Top Image: A mariachi group performs at Mariachi Plaza in Boyle Heights to fundraise for the mariachi relief fund. | Courtesy of Community Power Collective