by Roberto J. González

Listen to the audio version of this essay here

Before I’d even slid the door shut, Enrique punched the throttle. His battered Dodge minivan lurched forward, and the passengers greeted me affectionately, as always. ¿Qué onda, Beto? ¿Cómo estás? Eight mariacheros packed into a dusty Caravan—running late.

 

The wood-paneled machine sailed through downtown Oakland, light after yellow light, before decelerating near the freeway on-ramp. Red to green—Enrique kicked the floorboard again, cranking up the radio as we ascended the curved incline, towards the buttermilk summer moon. A luscious ballad by Mexican male diva Juan Gabriel was our soundtrack. Ricardo playfully embraced his fellow violinist Chalío and me with outstretched arms. We serenaded each other with abandon: No me dejes nunca. . .te lo pido por favor.

Eyes closed, I settled into my corner. Even with crisp air circling through open windows, a familiar funk surrounded us—Azzaro cologne, stale sweat, Red Bull, chicharrones, antifreeze, cigarettes. We soared across the bay towards Playa Azul, a seafood restaurant in San Francisco’s Mission district, where we were the house band.

From 2003 to 2007, the young Mexican immigrants were my bandmates, best friends, and confidants. Our group worked the entire region, from Silicon Valley’s manicured tech campuses to bullet-pocked eastside barrios. We shopped, cooked, and double-dated together, strangers in a strange land.

I won’t burden you with how the Michoacanos traversed Arizona’s deadly desert, or how the Jalisqueños arrived using sham O-2 visas (for “accompanying an O-1 artist”). I won’t explain why a college professor moonlighted as a trumpeter. (Short answer: great money, goddamn fun.) I’ll spare you details about how we memorized 500+ standards, or transposed music on the fly.
I just want to take you along for the ride.

Photo by Doctor Popular via Flickr/CC-by-NC2.0

Mariachi work isn’t easy. Plucking, pulling, blowing, strumming, singing for hours—after laboring as a daytime landscaper, roofer, or car washer—requires strength and stamina. It’s also cerebral: remembering or improvising songs, handling cash, dealing with difficult clients, flirting with easy ones, evading danger in crumbling cantinas or lavish gated communities.

Hustling with mariachis means inhabiting an off-the-books world where cash reigns supreme—no guarantees, receipts, or warranties. No red tape, W-2s, or taxes. It’s a world of caveat emptor—buyer beware—and seller beware too, where anyone can get royally screwed. A world of pimps, prostitutes, pusher-men. Of grandmothers peddling tamales from pushcarts, and shivering day laborers huddled on street corners. It’s a tough world.

That’s why we loved Playa Azul, a classy little oasis surrounded by pupuserías, pawnshops, storefront churches, and check-cashing joints. It was a friendly haven where families celebrated birthdays and anniversaries over shrimp cocktails and ceviche. We didn’t worry much anymore about getting mugged in piss-stained dives, or caught in barroom brawls. Here, we booked high-end weddings and quinceañeras, hauling in $8000 on good weeks. I know—I was the moneyman, pockets bulging with inch-thick rolls of Benjamins.

Playa Azul, the Mission, San Francisco. Photo by Roberto J. González

Every Friday, Enrique double-parked, hazard lights flashing, while we swiftly unpacked instruments. We strutted in like black cockerels with puffed chests, silver buttons sparkling, absorbing the essence of briny oysters and seared huachinango. After a restroom trip to tap kidneys, slick back hair, pick teeth, and primp bowties, we tuned up. Then we found the liveliest party, surrounded it, and unloaded the big guns—compliments of the house. That was enough to get the family patriarch or matriarch asking for more, at twenty bucks a pop.

Success hinged on analyzing every table, every person—you see, the mariachero is part troubadour, part therapist, part vaudevillian. We played romantic boleros for lovebirds, brazenly gallanted with girls-night-out groups, and loosened up tight-assed office workers, freed from cubicles. Later, we slithered to the backbar and soothed sodden, suffering souls. At midnight, we divvied up the spoils. Then back again the next day.

In California, mariachis reflect the state’s sixteen million latinoamericanos. Parents organize groups to keep working-class students culturally connected—and out of trouble. All-female and LGBT groups blossom as machismo wilts. Los Angeles produces high-octane hybrids, like punk and metalhead mariachis. Meanwhile, well-groomed, polished bands record albums and tour with superstars.

My bandmates had humbler motives: to support their families in Mexico, maybe even return there for a better life. Most accomplished the first goal; none reached the second.

Eventually, academic obligations forced me out. My compañeros understood—but it still hurt. The mariachi lives on, though Ricardo says the magic’s gone.

On a summer afternoon, Playa Azul vanished. It burned to the ground four years ago.

They say it was an electrical fire—overloaded sockets in the crowded tenements above. Miraculously, fifty-eight residents survived. Playa Azul didn’t.

By then, so many hipsters and techies had invaded the Mission that most mariacheros had fled. But that’s a story for another time.

 

Cite as: González, Roberto. 2020. “Mariachi by Moonlight.” In “Flash Ethnography,” Carole McGranahan and Nomi Stone, editors, American Ethnologist website, 26 October 2020, [https://americanethnologist.org/features/collections/flash-ethnography/mariachi-by-moonlight]

Roberto González teaches anthropology at San Jose State University. His most recent book is Connected: How a Mexican Village Built Its Own Cell Phone Network (University of California Press, 2020).