Life As A Mariachi

By: Nate Perez

It is 10 p.m. on a Tuesday night. A group of freelance mariachi musicians enter Rodeo Room, a latino bar in the Pico-Union neighborhood of central Los Angeles, only to get one paying customer.

After entering another bar and failing to get the attention of its patrons, the mariachis step into their SUV and head east toward Koreatown in hopes of landing people willing to pay for live music.

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By 1 a.m., the mariachi have only landed one gig and the rest of the night looks lost, something that is a common occurrence on a Tuesday night, said mariachi musician Fernando Trenado, 27.

Mariachi is a specific ensemble, made up of a group of instruments. A traditional mariachi group is made up of the vihuela, a guitarrón, six violins, two trumpets and a harp, but the instruments are up to interpretation depending on what’s available for a more loosely oriented group of freelance musicians.

Lauryn Salazar, assistant professor of musicology at Texas Tech University and adjudicator for mariachi competitions throughout Southern California, describes mariachi as an umbrella term for many different things within the mariachi tradition.

One of the most prevalent types of mariachis is the freelance group that goes table to table and plays by request at places like bars or restaurants — a situation that many residents of Southern California have seen, especially in Los Angeles and parts of Mexico.

Another style of mariachi is a group that performs at backyard parties, weddings and other more formal gatherings. These groups might rehearse together more than the group of freelance musicians.

One other style of mariachi is the showgroup, which is made up of professionals playing a virtuosic style of mariachi. Bands that fall under this category are bands like Los Camperos, Sol De Mexico and Mariachi Vargas. This group of mariachi play a highly sophisticated style of music that most other groups don’t have the musical training to play, Salazar said.

The last style of mariachi stems from the academic movement and made up of a lot of collegiate level mariachi groups that play at a very high level and compete in mariachi festivals.

Trenado, a violinist, always plays with a loose form of musicians and does not associate with a formal group. He is always on call, specifically on the weekends. Trenado lives within walking distance of Mariachi Plaza in Boyle Heights, where mariachi have gathered since the 1930s.

He spends a significant amount of time at the plaza, where he not only waits for his next gig, but sometimes just hangs out there because he likes being around the other mariachis.

“We basically meet over here and we just wait for somebody to pick us up,” said Trenado. “Most of these guys have my number, my information and they just call me, but like Saturdays, sometimes I don’t even have to stand over here. They have my number, [they say] go stand over there I’ll pick you up.”

The work isn’t exactly consistent and there are weeks that go by that are bad, Trenado said, but “it’s never that bad because whatever you make is good,” said Trenado.

Trenado said it is common for a mariachi member to make $400 - $600 a day on a busy weekend with a $50-an-hour guarantee.

Trenado has been a mariachi for three years and emigrated to the U.S. at 18. His journey has taken him from Guanajuato, Mexico to the Sacramento area and now Los Angeles.

“I came over to the United States when I was 18. I was just working like a regular Mexican, then I got married and soon after I was brought into Mariachi,” said Trenado. “[A man] heard the way I sing and he told me ‘You will make it one day.’”

Trenado began playing music at the age of 11, but soon was forced to abandon it because of the lack of support from his parents.

But now, Trenado’s life revolves around music so much that he is essentially going through a divorce because of mariachi.

“I can play anything man, even rock. To me, music is the main thing in my life,” said Trenado. “I left music once for five years, and I could be somewhere right now if I never stopped and people tell me that.”

For others, like Mark Fogelquist, violinist and director of Las Estrellas De Chula Vista and retired mariachi teacher, mariachi has been a journey that began over 50 years ago.

Fogelquist was apart of a mariachi group in Los Angeles for 20 years called Mariachi UCLAtan. He also taught mariachi in public schools for 20 years.

“I went to Guadalajara as a boy, 1961. I was 13 years old and I heard a mariachi there, first day I was there and I was there for three months,” said Fogelquist. “I immediately fell in love with the music.”

Fogelquist said what separates the distinct styles of mariachi is the quality of the music that comes with the level of proficiency the musician has with their instrument.

Groups like Los Camperos, Sol De Mexico and Mariachi Vargas are considered better not just because of superior musicianship, but the singers have better voices and they’re more together and united like a team.

Some groups are made up of the best musicians, but because they don’t work cohesively like a team, they might not have the same success as a group of that stays together, works together and work as a unified ensemble, Fogelquist said.

But despite the difference in style, many of the freelance musicians that play by request or hang out at the mariachi plaza are great musicians as well, Salazar said.

“A lot of these freelance musicians are top notch musicians themselves,” Salazar said. “It depends and it also depends on the demands of the clients.”

The clients themselves are ever-changing. Mariachis are not just limited to the Mexican or Latino fanbase. As a graduate student at UCLA, Salazar herself freelanced out of Mariachi Plaza. She played the harp and was hired to play in various situations, including corporate events where most of the clients were caucasian, Kwanzaa celebrations, Bar Mitzvahs and Hindu ceremonies.

“Mostly by people who had grown up in LA and even though they didn’t speak Spanish, weren’t Mexican or Latino, they attributed celebration to mariachi,” Salazar said. “For the most part, a lot of mariachi music is celebratory. Within Mexican society, you can have a mariachi follow you through all major life cycles: you’re born, you have a baptism if you’re catholic, you have a birthday party, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, marriage, divorce, death.”

Beginning in the 1990s, mariachi programs began spreading in elementary schools throughout the American southwest. Its popularity skyrocketed, and now there are programs in places like Chicago and New York, Salazar said.

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In 1961, the first academic mariachi program was initiated at UCLA and many of the participants in that program went on to teach at other universities and started their own mariachi programs across the U.S. These participants included people like Fogelquist and Dan Sheehy, director of the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. The movement trickled down to other programs, including elementary schools.

“When a lot of people would have blown it off and said this isn’t a legitimate topic of study and at UCLA, that was disproven,” Fogelquist said. “A number of individuals have come out of UCLA that have had an impact on furthering mariachi music and I spent 40 years of my life teaching and working as a mariachi trying to spread it,”

The chicano movement of the 1960s and 1970s also helped spread the mariachi movement throughout the U.S., especially in places like the southwest, where school boards were mostly comprised of all latino/hispanic members that started grassroot movements and were able to demand programing for latino students, Salazar said. The passing of the bilingual education act was a big driving factor, particularly in the kindergarten through high school system.

“Dan Sheehy, [Director of the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage] he has done a tremendous amount to further mariachi music by producing recordings, by producing events which features mariachis.”

While Trenado isn’t a scholar of mariachi or part of the academic movement, he is a modest musician with aspirations to learn and get better. Mariachi is a part of his everyday life and is his only source of income.

“You gotta be good, but I want to be better,” said Trenado. “Professional mariachis are [always looking for new talent].”