L.A.'s Mariachi Scene: Where Latin Culture Thrives In the Face of Trump

On a November day in Los Angeles, the mariachis get started early in the morning. Violinists in silver-spangled trajes de charro (horsemen’s uniforms) of black, white, orange, green and blue march past Victorian homes, sawing out melodies in unison. Trumpeters follow, then scrawny teens hauling hefty wooden guitarrones, plucking sturdy basslines. A woman with white flowers in her hair carries a gold trumpet; a toddler in a tiny traje trails after a man with a violin, wearing a matching suit. Everyone sings.

This march through the streets to the East L.A. space known as Mariachi Plaza opened the Fiesta Anual de Santa Cecilia, named for the Roman martyr and patroness of music. Eighteen hundred years after the saint’s death, hundreds of performers led a raucous all-day party, with dozens of onlookers parked on concrete benches and folding chairs, watching groups from youth orchestras to Grammy-nominated acts (including the platinum-selling Sol de Mexico) play well into the night. “Here in L.A., on the plaza, it’s like in Mexico, where mariachis are there 24/7,” says Benito Rojas, a manager and trumpeter with Stockton, Calif.-based Mariachi Luz de Luna, who drove to L.A. to catch the festival.

On any other day, the scene at Mariachi Plaza, west of the stage set up for the festival, is decidedly more businesslike. Here, beneath a 6-foot-tall, pedestaled statue of 1930s Mexican singer Lucha Reyes, mariachi musicians congregate, networking for jobs at parties, restaurants, weddings and funerals that can pay $60 an hour per performer or more. On the Sunday before the festival, dozens of musicians milled around for hours, waiting for the texts and phone calls that would signal their next gigs.

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Omar, 15, a member of Mariachi Hermanos Olmos, waits for his father to pick up another musician on the plaza before heading to a job on Super Bowl Sunday.

Since the 2016 presidential election, this kind of scene is the more common one on the plaza. Musicians from Mexico have become more reluctant to swing across the border to perform on weekends, making it difficult for L.A. bandleaders to fill out their groups. And local immigrants who hire mariachis for parties are more reluctant to do so -- no one wants a noise complaint to draw police or U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

“One time we were playing, some guys started drinking, there was a rumble, and a security guard threw them out and called police,” says trumpeter Jaime Valdivia, 40, who awaits work this Sunday afternoon and notes that business on the plaza, where mariachis mostly cater to L.A.’s immigrant community, has slowed. “That’s when the trouble begins.” (Like most musicians in this story, Valdivia spoke through an interpreter.)

During the past three or four years, Valdivia has come to depend more on income from his other job, transporting cars between L.A. auto dealerships. “People are afraid to throw parties. They’d rather save the money since they’re afraid of getting deported.”

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Mariachi Ambiente vocalist Loryann onstage at the 2018 Santa Cecilia festival, which brings hundreds of musicians to Mariachi Plaza.

Most of the musicians looking for weekend work on the plaza these days are longtime U.S. citizens, but they still use words like “afraid,” “scared” and “terrified” to describe the community of immigrants who hire mariachi groups. “There is fear,” says Refugio Pena, 58, just before he gets into a car on Boyle Street that will transport his five-man group, El Kora y Su Mariachi, to a party in South Central L.A. “And we shouldn’t have it.”

One of the central messages of Donald Trump’s presidency has been that undocumented immigrants, particularly those coming to the United States from Mexico, represent a criminal threat. But his policies are arguably more about instilling the kind of fear the mariachis describe. They not only dissuade immigrants from entering the country but discourage those who live here -- undocumented or otherwise -- from openly celebrating their culture. Immigration-related arrests in California increased from 17,959 in 2016 to 20,154 in Trump’s first year in office, according to Syracuse University’s TRAC Immigration database. The numbers increased to a smaller degree in 2018, mostly because California passed the Values Act, barring local police from helping ICE on immigration arrests. Still, in September, agents reportedly arrested 150 undocumented immigrants in L.A.

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A member of Mariachi Reyna de Los Angeles prepares for the festival.

“People who are fearing ICE and the Department of Homeland Security are changing their ways of doing things,” says Nikki Mehrpoo Jacobson, an L.A. immigration attorney. “They fear the government has changed, where people can come and round you up, even at a party: ‘If there’s mariachi music, then there must be illegal immigrants there.’”

And for an art form like mariachi music that thrives on live performance, fear of throwing parties and of hiring musicians like those on the plaza exposes a more insidious effect of Trump’s policies -- fear of Latin culture in the United States.

At the annual Santa Cecilia festival, those fears seem to recede, at least for the moment: Police respectfully look on as musicians of all ages wander in and out of the plaza. “People are coming together,” says Brenda Crystal, an 18-year-old singer in a bright green uniform. “They’re becoming unified” in the face of Trump.

Mariachi Plaza sits at the nexus of Bailey and First streets and Boyle Avenue in rapidly gentrifying Boyle Heights, near East L.A. (the musicians there colloquially refer to it as “La Boyle”). On the Sunday afternoon before the festival, Juan Carlos Olmos, 42, relaxes on a bench on its northwest side, his sons Juan Carlos, 16, and Omar, 15, nearby in matching black uniforms; they play in Mariachi Hermanos Olmos. All learned the music from their fathers. “It’s in my blood,” says the elder Olmos.

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Mariachis hang out at the J & F Ice Cream Shop on a Friday afternoon. Besides serving as a central location for picking up gigs, Mariachi Plaza has become an important place for the musicians to network and find camaraderie.


The history of mariachi music is deeply intertwined with Mexico’s own. The modern style began in Jalisco in the late 1890s, and throughout the Mexican Revolution, soldier-mariachis played corridos, or folk ballads. As violinist Patricia Greathouse writes in her book Mariachi, the musicians were by the 1920s considered vagrants in Mexico City, dodging police who wouldn’t let them perform in public. But through the ’30s and ’40s, radio turned mariachis like Tito Guízar into stars, and artists like Pedro Infante and Jorge Negrete were winning roles in Hollywood films.

Today, only U.S. stations in heavily Hispanic markets, like KWIZ (La Ranchera) in Santa Ana, Calif., and KSJV (Radio Bilingue) in Fresno, air mariachi music. Few record labels, even indies, specialize in the style, which over the years has joined with genres like cumbia and ranchera and fallen under the wider regional Mexican umbrella, which is hugely popular: Over 150 stations air it, and overall streams grew from 11.7 billion in 2017 to 14.8 billion last year, according to Nielsen Music. Typically, the Grammy Awards will recognize at least one mariachi act each year. (In 2019, the group Mariachi Sol de Mexico de Jose Fernandez was nominated for best regional Mexican music album.)

It’s musicians like those on the plaza who keep mariachi alive on a ground level, performing within and beyond their home communities -- which makes the increasing lack of opportunities especially worrisome. “People are potentially at risk when they bring their child to school,” says Michelle Carey, a supervising attorney specializing in immigration with the nonprofit Los Angeles Center for Law and Justice. “What does that look like when they’re throwing a party?”

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Mariachi Alegría de la Vida warms up before its Santa Cecilia festival performance.

While fewer people are hosting the events that employ mariachis, intensified ICE sweeps have also dissuaded undocumented musicians from crossing the border into California and coming to the plaza in the first place. Work visas are available to some -- if they can get a manager, event promoter or other employer to sponsor them and submit the complicated paperwork months in advance. But “most of the musicians are from Mexico and can’t get into the country,” says Rosa Barajas, whose family runs Yeya’s, the Mexican restaurant across the street from the plaza, which employs mariachi bands on weekend nights. “The managers like people from Mexico because they have experience.” (She also spoke through an interpreter.)

Even if they do get into the country, undocumented musicians who might come to the plaza have become wary of Border Patrol checkpoints along the highway between Los Angeles and San Diego. “If their papers aren’t good, they’re not going to want to go far,” says Sally Hawkridge, who books and performs in singer Aurelio Reyes’ longtime group, Mariachi Trio Palenque. “The more you’re on the highway, the more you might get stopped.”

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With speaker in tow, a mariachi heads to a waiting car ready to take him to a job.

About eight years ago, when younger mariachis arrived on the plaza, intent on undercutting the established musicians’ prices, Arturo Ramirez -- a mariachi guitarist who had come to East L.A. from Durango, Mexico, in 1986 -- formed the United Mariachi Organization of Los Angeles, which now has thousands of members. Long before the plaza formally became a local landmark with its own Metro stop in 1993, Ramirez had helped transform it into not only a central meeting place for mariachis, but a reminder of where they had come from: It was modeled after Mexico City’s 100-year-old Plaza Garibaldi, and the red brick building housing Ramirez’s office was once known as a “mariachi hotel” for visiting musicians.

Today, when Ramirez, 58, isn’t performing, he’s educating his membership on, for example, how Los Angeles police officers are not allowed to work with ICE on raids and deportations. He recalls an overall uptick in business when the economy was booming under President Obama, but since the 2016 election, he says the reality has been starkly different. “This has affected us,” says Ramirez. “It is the financial aspect. Before, we had eight hours of work on Saturday. Now we have five or six.”

For those in the upper echelons of the mariachi community, further removed from the risk of Border Patrol stops, daily reminders of Trump immigration policies still lurk. Mariachi USA’s late-2017 festival at the Austin360 Amphitheater in Austin sold just 3,500 out of what promoters estimated would be 7,000 tickets, says Rodri J. Rodriguez, the festival’s executive director and owner. In part, she blames local reports that ICE was following children home on school buses, then knocking on families’ doors to request documents. “There was such great fear,” she says. “Austin is a challenge.” (Rodriguez adds that her festival has been asked to return this year, and she thinks the atmosphere has “tempered a bit.”)

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Reyes (standing) performs solo as El Gallo de Chiapas and with a trio. 

But beyond the plaza, mariachi culture is growing. Colleges such as Cal Poly Pomona and Texas Tech have built rich curriculums and support bands on both campuses. The Chicago Mariachi Festival has drawn 20,000 attendees in recent years. And Mariachi USA’s own festival has sold out the Hollywood Bowl for several years straight, showcasing top stars such as Mariachi Los Reyes and the current incarnation of veteran bolero trio Los Panchos, whose Sabor a Mí has over 351 million on-demand streams, according to Nielsen Music. “We are creating new generations of mariachi fans,” says Jose Hernandez, bandleader for Sol de Mexico. Some of Latin music’s biggest acts offer mariachis a wider stage: For years, Luis Miguel has toured with them, and Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlán -- which regularly plays theaters, casinos and performing arts centers on its own -- joined him for his 2018 tour.

“When Trump became president, you knew there’s not going to be good news,” says Fernando Trenado, a violinist who manages L.A.’s Mariachi Sangre del Bajio. “But afterward, to me, it has been normal. Of course, it’s going to be ups and downs, but there is no doubt, every Saturday, you’re going to work.” Adrian C. Arreola, a DJ and L.A. event coordinator who often hires and works with mariachi groups, doubts that Trump’s policies will truly stifle this niche of Latin culture. “Latinos are very resilient,” he says. “They’re still going to have their parties, regardless of these outside variables.”

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Seventeen-year-old Veracruz, Mexico, native Christian, who now lives in Los Angeles, at the Santa Cecilia festival.

The mariachi community has, after all, endured oppression practically since its turn of the century beginnings back in Jalisco -- and as the musicians on the plaza persevere, they preserve not only a form of music, but the culture in which it was born. Lauryn Salazar, the director of Texas Tech University’s mariachi program and herself a Mexican harpist in mariachi bands, references one long-ago threat: Hernan Cortés, the infamous conquistador who in the 1500s colonized the Aztec Empire and gave the region to Spain. “Hey, we’ve survived Cortés. We’ll survive Donald Trump,” she says. “The community will survive, and it’s through our arts that that survival is possible.”

This article originally appeared in the Feb. 16 issue of Billboard.