By Jim Benning
Westways, May 2018
On a cool Saturday afternoon, several guys in skintight black suits cruised up the 710 freeway in an SUV. They sang along to rancheras on the radio as they turned onto I-5, and cracked jokes as they banked onto the 110. When they neared Highland Park, the silver medallions on their suits caught the sunlight, and other drivers looked over and smiled. The men pulled off and parked, and a woman ushered them into a sprawling backyard. “Come in!” she said. “It’s my mom’s 60th birthday!” Wasting no time, the members of Mariachi Teocuitatlan stood before dozens of cheering revelers and, with trumpets blaring and strings soaring, launched into a blistering rendition of the Mexican classic, “Las Mañanitas.”
It was time to get this party started.
When you’re a mariachi-for-hire band in L.A. with a killer Yelp ranking, sharp suits, and serious musical chops, this is how you spend your weekends: crisscrossing Southern California freeways, going from barrio backyards to gated mansions, playing weddings, birthday parties, funerals, and everything in between. And because you’re el mero mero, or the boss, you know the right song to play for any occasion—when to bust out “El Son de la Negra” to raise the temperature at a flagging party, or “Ave Maria” to bestow solemnity upon a wedding, or “Amor Eterno” to offer solace at a memorial. For this, people not only pay you hundreds of dollars an hour, but ply you with food and drinks: carne asada tacos, cheeseburgers, or crudités, not to mention cold beer, tequila, and Orange Crush.
I know this because I recently tagged along with Mariachi Teocuitatlan on a typical Saturday. Though I’m a gringo who grew up on ‘80s rock and new wave, at some point in my 20s, I fell hard for mariachi and those gut-wrenching songs about heartbreak, love, and longing that seemed to speak directly to my budding writer’s soul. Since then, I’ve taken in concerts at the International Mariachi Festival in Guadalajara, explored mariachi’s roots in small towns in Jalisco, and loitered in Mexico City’s Plaza Garibaldi as mariachis played late into the night. But until now, I’d never spent time with journeyman mariachis in Los Angeles.
Southern California is made up of a thousand different worlds, and all too often, because of language barriers or geography or the tyranny of routine, many of us inhabit only a few. I wanted to see my hometown through the eyes of mariachis. If only for a day, I wanted to inhabit their world. So began my quest to immerse myself in a musical universe that’s as much a part of our sonic landscape as the Beach Boys or the Eagles.
In short order—after a Google search, a scouring of Yelp reviews, and a phone call to Mariachi Teocuitatlan—I found myself in Mariachi Plaza. The Boyle Heights square dates back to the 1930s, when immigrant mariachis gathered at a doughnut shop and waited to be hired for gigs. The shop is long gone, but mariachis still congregate in the plaza to await work. By some estimates, Los Angeles is home to the largest population of mariachis outside of Mexico. Competition is stiff, so the guys in Mariachi Teocuitatlan take a tech-savvy approach to the business: They post ads on Craigslist and videos on Instagram, and obsessively cultivate a five-star ranking on Yelp, where more than a hundred clients have sung the group’s praises. Because the guys mostly live nearby, they often meet in Mariachi Plaza to start their workdays.
I soon spotted the group’s 25-year-old leader, Erwin Vasquez, near the bandstand. He wore an elegant black suit with a brown-striped bowtie, shiny medallions across his barrel chest, and silver studs on his pants. A native Angeleno whose mariachi-loving parents emmigrated from Jalisco, Vasquez grew up in Lincoln Heights. As a kid, he listened to everything from hip hop to norteño and studied the trumpet at a public school for the arts. “My mom just wanted to keep me out of trouble,” he told me. He’d never planned to become a mariachi. In fact, he thought he’d wear another kind of uniform—that of an LAPD officer. But five years ago, while he was taking classes at Pasadena City College, he was invited to join Mariachi Tecuitatlan, named for the founder's small Mexican hometown. Vasquez readily agreed, and when the founder quit to become an engineer, Vasquez assumed the leadership role. “To be a mariachi, you need a special type of personality,” he explained. “You have to look as though you’re having an amazing day, even if you aren’t. You have to give it your all.”
Vasquez introduced me to the group’s other members: Cornelio Reina, a.k.a. “Boni,” who also plays trumpet; Armando Santiago on violin; Elias Barajas on the guitarrón bass; and Carlos Estrada Aceves on the small, five-stringed vihuela. (Mariachi groups can have a dozen or more members—men and women—but manySoCal bands are smaller, so earnings are spread among fewer musicians.) Soon, Vasquez checked the time and ushered us into the SUV and an aging sedan. The men had four gigs to play, and we needed to get to a wedding pronto.
Forty minutes later, we pulled up to St. Anthony Catholic Church in Long Beach and jumped out. Vasquez and the others studied their reflections in the car windows, smoothing their hair and straightening their vests. Then they grabbed their instruments and slipped into the church through a side door. Not long after, I looked on as Vasquez and Reina held their trumpets high and blew, sending a cascade of bright notes soaring. The strings reverberated off the walls, and the place filled with “El Ángel,” a song the mariachis often perform during entrances. Over the next hour, the priest led the Mass, alternating between English and Spanish, and pausing often so the musicians could play. When the newlyweds finally kissed, the mariachis broke into a joyous rendition of “Marcha Nupcial,” (a.k.a. “Wedding March”), then disappeared out the side door and collected their fee.
Back in the parking lot, Vasquez was buoyant. I asked how the guys knew what songs to play, and when. Had the bride and groom requested a particular set list? He tucked his trumpet into its case and smiled. “We’ve played so many wedding Masses,” he said, chuckling. “We just know.”
The 710 was blissfully empty as we headed north toward Highland Park. I grilled the guys about their most memorable gigs and learned of a performance at a Bel Air mansion for a country music star, a TV commercial with hip-hop phenom DJ Khaled, and their “Emo Nite” appearance at the Echoplex, when they covered a Blink 182 song, mariachi-style. They also endured a tough four-funeral day and once played at the bed of a dying man who just had to hear mariachi one last time. (A week later, the guys played the same man’s funeral.)
We had a few minutes to spare, so we stopped at a McDonald’s. The men strolled up to the counter to order and an employee rushed over, barely able to contain her excitement. “Where’s the party?” she gushed. Vasquez laughed and invited her to come along, then turned to me and grinned: “Everybody loves mariachis.”
The party was, in fact, a mile away, amid the rolling hills and swaying palms of Highland Park. After Susan Urquiza waved us into the backyard, her brother Manuel Delgado introduced himself to me, pointed to the guest of honor, and beamed. “My mom came here from Mexico when she was 18,” he said. “She left me and my brother behind in Durango for a year, then came back and got us. She became an American citizen, bought a house, followed all the rules, and she’s lived the American Dream.” I told him I could feel the love at what turned out to be her 60th party. He patted me on the back. “You need to eat!” he said.
The mariachis worked through “La Bamba” and “Cielito Lindo,” and when they broke into the plaintive “Un Día a la Vez,” Delgado held his mother close and danced with her. After a piñata had been demolished and the cake had been cut, we took our leave and cruised north to Pasadena, where a certain elation I’d begun to feel only intensified as the guys played another birthday party, and revelers danced while the sun dropped behind the hills.
Then we wound our way up a steep road in City Terrace for the night’s final gig. A cold wind blew, so to stay warm, the guys pulled on matching gabanes—the mariachi answer to ponchos. Downtown L.A. sparkled in the distance as a few dozen men and women bundled in sweaters hovered around a backyard fire pit. A somberness hung in the air, and as the mariachis began to play, I discovered why. Angel Diaz, who was standing nearby in jeans, a sweater, and a black baseball cap, told me he’d planned the gathering as a birthday celebration for his wife, Sonia, who was soon to turn 36. But earlier in the week, the mother of four had suffered a stroke and died. What’s more, Sonia’s brother Jorge Gomez had died only days before. So the party became a memorial. Angel saw no reason to cancel the music. Sonia had always loved mariachi.
The guys struck up a tune. After all, they’ve played their share of memorials. “It’s the ritual," Vasquez told me later. "It’s how we say goodbye.” The mariachis performed for the scheduled two hours. And when the family wanted more, the band played on. As the hours passed, the guys grew cold and tired. Later, I’d learn that Vasquez’s feet were so icy they were aching, and Barajas’s fingers were numb. But the mariachis didn’t let the discomfort show and played with as much heart as they'd done all day.
Near the end of the night, someone requested “Volver, Volver,” that ode to heartbreak and longing to return to a lost love. Aceves strummed the vihuela, establishing a steady rhythm. Vasquez blew mournfully into his trumpet. A few feet away, Diaz, his friends, and family passed drinks around and swayed to the music, taking comfort from it, I hoped, or at least losing themselves in it. I could feel the song gaining momentum, and the guys summoning every last ounce of energy they had. When they hit the familiar chorus—“Y volver, volver, voooooolver”—their voices soared. In fact, the music seemed to catch the wind and sail beyond the yard, and even past the neighborhood, out into the cool Los Angeles night.