Notes from a mariachi journey
By Carlos Jasso
When I found out that mariachi music had been added to the U.N educational and cultural agency, UNESCO’s, intangible cultural heritage list, I decided to find out what the mariachis themselves thought about it. I went to the famous Garibaldi square, known as the “home of the mariachis”. I wanted to capture a sense of the atmosphere and emotion of this place where many Mexicans go to celebrate, to party, to fall in love, to reminisce, all to the background music and lyrics of the mariachis. Another visually interesting scene I wanted to illustrate was the Xochimilco canal where locals and tourists alike hire small boats and are serenaded by mariachis.
6:30am Garibaldi Square
Glasses, bottles of tequila, piles of rubbish and a few drunkards were strewn on the square as the shutters of the cantinas were pulled down. Scattered groups of tight trouser wearing, black mustached, sporting Elvis Presley gelled haircuts, big bellied, silver belt buckled musicians were playing with full enthusiasm to the last party-goers and the street cleaners.
As I crossed the square listening to the mariachi music I saw an elderly man sitting on his trumpet case and leaning on the door of a news paper kiosk. He saw me and the moment I grabbed my camera he looked down.
Me: “Hey Sr. Good Morning (silence)… mmmmmmmm. How do you feel to be recognized as the UNESCO Heritage of Humanity? (silence)
Grumpy mariachi: “WHAT? We are WHAT? Well, I don’t really know what you are talking about but I have been a mariachi for 60 years and a new title is not going to change anything, is it? Our clients will pay us exactly the same. So, what’s the big deal?”
He was right, it’s just a new title. The sad thing is that nothing will change and he is not proud to be internationally recognized. Maybe they should have been recognized earlier? I moved on to seek a more positive answer.
I continued chatting with different musicians and was overwhelmed with the variety of positive and negative responses towards becoming recognized; some were proud to be on the heritage list and others weren’t bothered. The majority are musicians by family trade and many have traveled the world. Imagine this, one musician commented that just for the simple fact of being a mariachi, they were not checked at customs in the Mexican airport; demonstrating that their own country recognizes them as a major symbol of Mexico. However, many said they felt they are more recognized internationally than in their own country.
Following day 2:00 pm, Xochimilco
I saw brightly colored traditional boats, known as trajineras, filled with groups of smiling families, friends and lovers enjoying a traditional Sunday picnic on the canals on the outskirts of Mexico City. Canoes selling food, drinks, souvenirs cruised by while boats of mariachis created the perfect scene for a relaxing Sunday afternoon.
Sitting on a boat with my family, celebrating my birthday with a beer in hand, we were in search of the best floating mariachi boat recommended by the punter. After listening to hoards of musicians we sailed up to the locally famous white suited mariachis and ordered a 100 peso song “No soy Monedita de Oro” or “I’m not a Golden coin” by Cuco Sanchez, followed by another six songs. I was delighted to see my 60 year-old mother singing along to all the songs and watching my four-month-old daughter enjoying her first mariachi serenade, a Mexican tradition that will continue through generations.
I asked the band’s opinion regarding the UNESCO recognition and again I was rewarded with a perplexed look followed by an answer, “Thank you for letting us know”. Once again this recognition hadn’t reached their ears.
7:00pm, back to Garibaldi
As the sun went down, a group of Mariachis played by the Virgin Santa Cecilia, the Saint of the Mariachis and a line of Mariachis ran behind cars on the street trying to sell their songs; a typical scene in the 24/7 lifestyle of a mariachi.
Mariachi music is an essential part of the Mexican culture, for example it’s not a proper Mexican wedding, anniversary, serenade under a balcony or even an airport welcoming if you don’t have a mariachi there. So, what I found out on my three day mariachi journey is that the UNESCO recognition of mariachi music has not changed their lives but I realized the importance of the mariachis as a symbol of Mexican culture both at home and internationally.