A group of men dressed casually in jeans and t-shirts lounge and play poker as their hands deal cards. The parked vans with their business numbers written on the windows replace the crowds that once gathered around them. The sound of passing cars can be heard driving down East 1st Street. But where have all the mariachis gone?
In an effort to slow the spread of COVID-19, people have sheltered at home, limited large in-person group meet-ups and begun to wear face masks.
Some businesses have managed to adapt as restaurants provide takeout orders and shopping can be done online from the comfort of your own home.
But what happens to those jobs or businesses that don’t have the means necessary to adapt?
“Domestic workers, child care providers, street vendors, all these community members really rely on everybody else to go to work so that they can make their ends meet,” Alessandro Negrete, a resident of Boyle Heights shared over the phone. “They’re also not getting these resources so we’re seeing these underground economies not still being resilient and finding ways to work by selling masks now and making the masks.”
Negrete is a member of the Neighborhood City Council and is a strategic consultant for nonprofits and government agencies. He works in advocacy and in creating equitable mechanisms for the intersections that exist between people of color which include immigrants, low income, no income, LGBTQ folks and everyone else in between.
Boyle Heights is not new to experiencing displacement. Located on the Eastside of Los Angeles, a predominantly Latinx community, the neighborhood has felt the strong effects of gentrification that has forced many longtime residents out.
In the midst of hip coffee shops, empty buildings that are for lease and outsiders moving in — one place remains unchanged.
Since the 1930s, Mariachi Plaza has been a home away from home for many Mexian and Mexican-American folks living in Los Angeles. It’s a place of pride dedicated to Mexican culture, through murals, statues and music. Mariachi players who were available for hire would walk around the plaza dressed in their charro suit, a horseman’s riding outfit, in the hopes of finding an opportunity to play live.
However, the pandemic has significantly impacted the live music genre players. Many have struggled to survive as live events have been canceled and celebrations all gone remotely or online. It did that for Allan Vasquez-Lopez of Mariachi Arcoiris (the Spanish word for rainbow).
“Since the stay-at-home orders started, we can’t do any public events,” Vasquez-Lopez revealed. “It was very unfortunate that this happened during our busiest time of the year which is in May and June for Pride month, especially for us being the first and only LGBTQ mariachi ever. We had a lot of Pride events planned which had to get canceled for the safety of everyone. As a mariachi it’s just very limited right now in terms of work so we’ve had to find other options.”
And while Mariachi Arcoiris is surviving through virtual performances, the concern of who has online access to view them and could it contribute to online gentrification comes to mind.
“I mean just as Mexican culture has been gentrified, for example Halloween costumes and Cinco de Mayo with people putting on sombreros, it’s (mariachi music) inevitably going to be gentrified the more popular and mainstream it could become,” Vasquez-Lopez said. “So I think it really is up to us, the people that are playing it, to not lose sight of what it means and where it comes from.”
At the same time, Vasquez-Lopez continued, “[A]s I’m in the world’s first LGBTQ mariachi, we are transforming its machista origins and kind of turning it on its head but still staying true to the genre and the musicality of the actual music. So as long as we keep transforming it and never losing sight of the core energy of the music, I think that’s really what matters and what teaches people at the end of the day.”
Yet as Plaza Mariachi remains quiet and vacant, across the street a red lit-up sign reads “open” at a mariachi music store’s front window.
Since 1978 La Casa del Musico, or the musician’s house in Spanish, has been in business since 1978 musical albums, instruments, accessories, song books and other equipment for mariachi musicians. Noel Jamarillo is the current store owner after his aunt and uncle were the first proprietors of the business. The store has been affected with the rise of streaming services and competition with online music stores, however mariachi players have long been their most reliable client.
“This is the first time we’ve had to close the business for almost two months while still trying to pay the rent and bills,” Jamarillo shared in Spanish. “If the mariachis don’t have work then I don’t have work. They rely on our accessories and it’s affecting us. We applied for financial assistance but didn’t receive it and another loan would mean more debt.”
The chain reactions caused by the pandemic has affected Boyle Heights as they still grapple with the effects of gentrification.
“People are staying home and street vendors rely on the foot traffic,” Negrete said. “Mariachis rely on celebrating people’s lives, but no one is being allowed to celebrate. There is nothing worth for folks to feel like celebrating right now. These are cultural things that people may not think about, but in these underground economies, they’re being impacted in a way worse way. Socially we’re not seeing them, they’re already unseen. Economically we’re not thinking about them.”