Entering El Mercadito in Boyle Heights feels exactly like entering a marketplace in Mexico City. The smell of fresh pan dulce, the sizzling of elote, the shopkeepers yelling “¡Pásale, pásale señorita!,” rainbow-colored rows of boots, and especially the music. At El Mercadito, vendors sell all types of Mexican music, and often invite guests to sample the wares on blasting speakers. But the real musical attraction is at the third floor restaurants, El Torasco and La Perla. There, mariachi groups perform at two stages on opposite ends of the building. “Warring mariachis,” you could say. Each group tries to play louder and better than the other. From my table at La Perla, mariachi group Alma Campesina blocked out all other sounds.
The all male musicians (playing trumpet, violin, guitar, guitarron and vihuela) had clearly spent years dedicated to the art of mariachi. The musicians did not just play their instruments, but truly performed. They injected bravado and loud confidence into each number, even when lamenting a broken heart. They danced with big stomps, and emoted with exaggerated facial expressions and large hand gestures. Even between songs, their energy didn’t slack. They played little flourishes on their instruments, joked with each other, drank from a nearby bottle and schmoozed with the audience. Their carefree attitude didn’t interfere with their performance. Each musician played in time, and the notes were on pitch.
I’m not sure the audience would have noticed even if the songs had been off-key. They responded with constant enthusiasm – singing along, shouting “¡ay ay ay!” and “¡Si señor!” and moving their shoulders to the beat. I loved best the little old man who literally danced between the tables selling flowers. His huarache-wearing feet just couldn’t stop prancing, jumping and spinning.
The mariachis first played “Nuestro Juramento” by Benito de Jesus. Although the song is about anguish, with lyrics like “your weeping hurts me so much that my heart is full of anguish” and “if I die first then it’s your promise that you’ll let all the tears that burst from your sadness fall over my cadaver, so that the world will discover your love,” the singer didn’t convey an oppressive sadness. Instead, he sang with the pride and honor of having such a deep love no matter the price. The trumpet flourishes between verses, a strong guitarron bass line and guitar chords that matched the melody enhanced the performance.
For the song “Que Te Falta Mujer” by Antonio Aguilar, a member of the audience jumped up to sing. Although he wore a simple orange polo shirt and jeans, his experience as a serious singer was obvious from the first jubilant “¡Ay, ay ay!” His voice was operatic – smooth, clear and buoyant. Hand gestures emphasized each sentiment. The mariachi group accepted him on the stage as one of their own – and maybe he was, a mariachi on his night off who couldn’t stay away from the music. Names and qualifications weren’t important here – only the music and whatever could sustain the happy, energy-charged atmosphere. After singing three songs, he gave a radiant smile, bowed, and left the stage.
I expected the white and gold-charro-wearing mariachis to take center stage once again, but instead a young woman in a black t-shirt and jeans jumped up for her turn at the microphone. Although not an official Alma Campesina member, she had a powerful voice perfectly suited to the song “El Macho Panzon” by Beatriz Adriana. The song is about a woman who can no longer bear her situation. She wants a man who will make her happy, treat her with respect and not be borracho all the time. She wants an “hombre,” not a “macho panzon” (macho fatso). Mariachi is often viewed as belonging to men who must either cry over lost loves or prove their machismo. A song expressing a woman’s point of view was refreshing.
When I finished my birria, the Alma Campesina Mariachis were still going strong. I left in good spirits, and thought of the Plaza de Garibaldi in Mexico City, a historic spot known for its mariachi music. On a recent trip to Mexico City, I had eagerly anticipated visiting the Plaza. As a native Angeleno with memories of the mariachis at Olvera St. and Linda Rondstadt’s Mexican songs that my mom loves, how could I not?
But the famed Plaza was a bit of a letdown. It was late at night in November, and the Mariachis wore Addidas sports jackets over their charros. They looked cold and tired as they half-heartedly plucked guitar strings and tooted their trumpets. I wondered if Mariachi music had been played to its limit and over-exhausted. My experience at El Mercadito reversed this idea completely.
Originally written for “Music of Latin America” class at Occidental College taught by Simeon Pillich, fall 2008.