Mexican Melodies : Mariachis Struggle to Make Money During Hard Times

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Times Staff Writer

They had a violin, a trumpet, a vihuela and a guitarron, but the only thing Los Cardenales played was pool.

The four-man mariachi already had hit five bars that night--El Norteno, Rancho Grande, El Paseo, Ramos’ Place and La Milpa--but could not coax a single person to plunk down $5 for a ranchera, cancion or any other Mexican song. And now, as a depressing drizzle fell outside the nearly deserted Los Amigos bar in Sylmar, vihuela player Fernando Lopez shot pool with trumpeter Javier Renteria. No one in Los Amigos wanted a song either.

The stoic Miguel Medina, the group’s gray-haired violinist, took the night’s disappointments in stride. “There are bad days,” he said.

Occasional hard luck is the norm for Los Cardenales and about 20 other wandering musical groups that make their livings--or at least try to--by playing almost every night in Latino bars in the northeast San Fernando Valley. Indeed, it’s not an easy life.


Come in All Sizes

The groups, ranging from ragtag trios to 10-piece mariachis in costume, generally perform in bars throughout Sylmar and Pacoima but favor a 12-block stretch of Van Nuys Boulevard between Laurel Canyon Boulevard and San Fernando Road. On any week night, and especially on weekends, the musicos can be seen lugging their instruments up and down the dimly lit street.

Along with East Los Angeles and Santa Ana, the musicians said, the northeast Valley is one of the few places in Southern California where Mexican street musicians work as they did in their homeland, strolling like troubadours from bar to bar in search of a few dollars.

Some groups live in the neighborhood, but others, Los Cardenales included, drive from as far away as El Monte or San Gabriel. Piri Cortes, a trumpeter with Mariachi Zapopan, said many groups prefer the Valley to East Los Angeles “because it’s more tranquil here. There is not as much competition.”

That may be the case for Cortes. But while his group played song after song, violinist Joaquin Quiroz sat forlornly at a nearby bar waiting for someone to request the services of his band, Mariachi Regional. No one did.

Larger Repertories

The mariachis and conjuntos, trios that play polka-like music of northern Mexico, have repertories including hundreds of traditional songs that speak to loves won and lost and to homesick longings. “Whatever they request, we play,” one musician said.

Most mariachi groups charge $5 or $6 a song. The three-man conjuntos typically charge less, about $3 or $4.

“The most we’ve ever made in one night was $70 each,” said Lopez of Los Cardenales. Sometimes, many street musicians said, a man will take home only $20 or $30 for a night’s work.

“Sometimes nothing,” Medina said.

But other times, the music and money flow like cold beer on a steamy summer day.

Daniel Soltero, owner of El Jalisco Bar No. 2, said he’s observed patrons listening to the minstrels of Van Nuys Boulevard for hours. Soltero pointed to one regular lining up a shot at a pool table. “If he’s drinking and has a nice waitress at his table, he’ll spend $200 or $250” on music, Soltero said.


Finds Big Spenders

The 10-piece Mariachi Zapopan found an equally appreciative audience when it played for a boisterous table of drinkers at the El Patio bar on San Fernando Road recently. “We played them 10 songs at $10 a song,” said guitarist and group leader Juan B. Ramirez.

Mariachi Zapopan, named after Ramirez’s hometown in the state of Jalisco, charges more than most groups, but it’s also bigger than most. Yet despite its size and impressive, full sound, the group abides by the same etiquette that guides the movements of even the lowliest conjunto.

In El Patio, for example, Mariachi Zapopan only performed while the house pop band took 15- or 30-minute breaks. The mariachis played only upon request and, except for a few strums on the five-string, guitar-like vihuela, did little to announce their presence. They just waited for someone to give the sign to play.

Ramirez keeps track of the songs performed in a little notebook and the group usually collects its fee without incident. But there are times, said violinist Miguel Garcia, when a drunk will ask for a song and then not want to pay. “Some people don’t know they have to pay,” trumpeter Cortes said.

Drunks present artistic problems as well.

Inebriated Amateurs

At El Patio, an obviously inebriated young man in a brown leather vest and cowboy hat grabbed the microphone from singer Jose Mendoza’s hand and started to sing in a scratchy, high-pitched voice between swigs of Corona. The mariachis played along amiably and even fed the man lyrics when his memory faltered.

But when the patron showed more interest in beer than in song, Mendoza reclaimed the microphone and, in his powerful baritone, finished the ranchera, a form of upbeat folk song often dealing with rural life.

Among the musicians’ biggest fans are the bar owners.

“They bring me more clientele,” bar owner Soltero said. The live music also calms rowdy crowds and puts customers at ease.


“They order more beer,” he said.

Compliments Yelled

As Soltero spoke, a man holding a long-necked Budweiser sent the bar owner a beer with his compliments and nodded with satisfaction toward the conjunto playing next to the bar. His drinking partner than let out a grito, the high-pitched and exuberant yell that enlivens Mexican song. There’s no finer compliment.

There were no gritos, however, the night Los Cardenales played pool at Los Amigos. The rain kept people home that night, and it’s hard to find work when the musicians outnumber the drinkers.

Even the rougher bars were quiet. Los Cardenales couldn’t find any business at El Paseo, where an armed guard frisks suspicious-looking customers before they enter. It was almost deserted at La Milpa, where a sign above the bar advises patrons: “For your protection, entering with firearms is prohibited.”

One More Try

So after finishing their game of pool at Los Amigos, the quartet loaded their instruments into an aging Ford station wagon and headed for Soltero’s El Jalisco Bar No. 2. Again, nothing.

The men drove to another bar on San Fernando Road, but it had closed for the night. The only crowd nearby was in an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting next door, but it was a poor substitute. “We play for alcoholics, no one else,” Lopez said.

Three bars later, Los Cardenales decided to call it quits. All they had to show for three hours of work was an empty gas tank.


Medina was disappointed, but not surprised. “This is the thing,” the violinist said. “Sometimes there are people, sometimes there aren’t.”

Los Cardenales would be back tomorrow. For now, Lopez said, “we’re going home to go to sleep.”