“This whole week, business has been terrible,” says Victor, dressed in his finest charro suit grays and whites on Easter Sunday. On the weekends, Mariachi Plaza is usually jam-packed with musicians waiting for gigs. They’ve gathered at the corner of Pleasant and East 1st Street for about 80 years now. There are a few burrito and ice cream shops circling the plaza, as well as Libros Schmibros, a lending library that traffics in both English and Spanish books. In the center there is a statue of Lucha Reyes, the mother of ranchera music (an offshoot of mariachi music) standing proudly.
The Plaza itself is a 40-foot tall domed structure completed in 1998 with pink cantera stone from Jalisco, Mexico, known as the birthplace of mariachi music. The director of L.A’s Cultural Affairs Department said at the time, “We really wanted to give the mariachis a dignified place in the very cradle of mariachi music.” Late last year, the city attempted to kick them out in pursuit of gentrification. Panic consumed the Boyle Heights neighborhood, which is working class, mostly Mexicana, and 100,000 strong. An anti-gentrification sign was hung from the Boyle Hotel across the street, which is still up today. Animated community meetings took place, with residents claiming that the city was going to create a bland Metro Stop For Everybody (code for white people). The city backed down. “Boyle Heights,” declared local housing and development blog Curbed Los Angeles, “is Winning the War on Gentrification.”
All of which gives Victor plenty of time to talk about how he’s not getting any business. He’s in his forties or fifties, skinny, bald under his sombrero. Holy Week is never good he says, too many people in church. He’s been playing mariachi music, with a specialty in guitar and violin, since he was 10 years old in Mexico City, and now that he’s in Los Angeles, the Plaza has become indispensable. “If someone wants to hire a mariachi band in Los Angeles, they come here,” he says through a translator. If he gets the call, he’ll assemble a crew of musicians from whoever is present. If someone else gets work, they’ll put him on.
A typical mariachi band recruits five to eight members, and the best ones can pull $700 an hour, Victor says (he’s more of a $500-an-hour guy). He’d love to keep talking more, but another mariachi strolls up and makes a “Let’s roll” gesture: a gig has arrived, on the third floor of another Los Angeles institution, El Mercado, unofficially called El Mercadito. Translated as “The Tiny Market,” El Mercadito is actually a three-story behemoth of shops on shops on shops, on top of which is a restaurant where four mariachi bands play at the same time. He signals for me and my photographer to follow along.
Along the sidewalk outside El Mercadito are rows of used cars for sale, and in the parking lot there is a sizable mural of the Virgin of Guadalupe. On the lower floors are everything from DVDs to tiny bowls to statues of angels. On the third floor is La Perla English, a restaurant with a Yucatan theme and a mural of a full eight-piece mariachi band. It’s a detailed mural, including violins, guitarróns (Spanish for big guitar) and guitarróns de golpe (a smaller version).
Mariachi music, like polka or klezmer, has its roots in being a purely ethnic movement whose roots can be found in a very specific place: Jalisco, from which it spread during the early half of the 19th Century, a time in Mexican history that included an imported German emperor, a 10-year revolutionary war, and after that, another one that openly pitted the state against the Catholic Church. The various governments looked for stability anywhere they could find it. Beginning with the authoritarian regime of Porfirio Díaz, that meant supporting mariachi music. Various American recording companies, in search of ethnic music worldwide, came to Mexico to record, leaving with mariachi recordings being sold worldwide as early as 1908.
Those early recordings, which can be found today on YouTube, sound remarkably similar to what’s being played at La Perla English. That the sound has grown and also never changed is a point of pride for Arnunpo, an older mariachi setting up. His white suit is countered by his brown belt and orange scarf, each featuring intricate designs. He’s 65 and has been involved with mariachi music ever since he was 10, when he would follow mariachi bands around with a notebook. He’d watch their hands, noting how they’d play chords on guitars and where they’d place the bow on the violin and when he’d get home, would imitate them with help from his grandmother. There would be new songs, he says, but the spirit of mariachi music remains the same.
Thinking about his earliest days and now, in El Mercadito, where the instantly recognizable music surrounds us at every turn, the only comparison he can make is to soccer: start with the worst teams, work your way up to best. On that note, he has to go play a show now. In the next room over, Victor is singing and playing his heart out. Next weekend, they’ll be out on the Plaza again.
Photo credit: Salvador Ochoa