Many mariachi bands in the Bay Area are faced with putting down their guitars and hanging up their sombreros as the coronavirus pandemic rages on.
With the shutdown of restaurants and the cancellation of many gatherings where mariachis would often play — weddings, baptisms, quinceañeras — the traditional Mexican music groups are hard-pressed to find work.
“To be told that on the weekend there won’t be any work, it saddens me,” Rodolfo Torres of San Jose-based Mariachi Mi Mexico por Siempre said in Spanish, “not only because I’m not making money, but because I can’t do what I love.”
The shortage of playing jobs is especially hard on mariachi members whose livelihood depends on playing. Torres, for example, said the money he got from playing with the group was his primary source of income.
Torres said he knows the problems faced by mariachis are felt by all musicians, regardless of genre. Any music group that depends on live performances has taken a hit with the pandemic.
For mariachis, the COVID-produced setback follows a period in which the genre has generally been thriving, both in Mexico and the United States. More than just the music, in this country the bands provide a link for Mexican Americans to their cultural roots in Mexico.
Ranging in size from small groups of three to ensembles of 10 or more, mariachis are a common presence at major life events and celebrations. For example, Torres said, his group normally would have performed on the Dec. 12 Our Lady of Guadalupe celebration, a religious holiday held tight to the hearts of many Mexican and Mexican American families. But not this year.
Luis Ramirez, who plays with the group called Mariachi Premier de San Jose Ca, said in a Spanish post online that the group is currently performing a bit more than one quarter of the events it would have played before the pandemic. In a normal December, Ramirez estimates the band would play around 40 events; this December, they only performed 13.
Even as traditional mariachi events have been canceled, the bands are adapting as best they can to the change in circumstances. When there is work to be had, adjustments mean keeping people safe by limiting the size of gatherings, as well as observing guidelines for face masks and social distancing.
While Mariachi Mi Mexico por Siempre still plays on occasion for small gatherings and with renditions of “Las Mañanitas,” a traditional Mexican birthday song, Torres said that the number of musicians in the group is kept at a minimum and the band is not able to perform as a whole like it once did.
Maria Aceves, of Mariachi San Carlos, said the events where her group plays during the pandemic are often small and outdoors, with the band usually performing for about 10 people in one family at most.
“In celebrations from before, it was about the interactions with the people,” Aceves said. “They could be near us, we would sing together, we would feel like family.”
Interestingly, Mariachi San Carlos has noted rising demand from one group considered highly at-risk during the pandemic.
“There’s an increase in celebrations of people who are older,” said Maria’s husband, Andres Aceves. “People are celebrating their elders. … They’re worried that their loved ones won’t be with them later, and they want to give them their last birthday, they want to give them their last something.”
Underlying Andres observation is the grim reality of COVID-19, which not only causes more fatalities among the elderly, but which also exacts an especially heavy toll among Latinos. The California Department of Public Health reports Latinos make up almost 56% of the positive cases and about 47% of the COVID-related deaths in the state.
Yet even as they struggle to survive, mariachi band members’ enthusiasm for the music is undiminished, as are their hopes for a better future.
Musicians with Mariachi Mi Mexico por Siempre say that they remain passionate about what they do and yearn for the ability to perform and play music the way they used to.
“I get together with my friends and children and we play music,” Torres said, “We try to stay connected with the instruments two to three times a week to continue doing what we love, most of all, but also to hope that this pandemic comes to an end soon.”