In Protest, Mariachis Sing for Their Survival

Times Staff Writer

No minivans lined up to hire a band at Mariachi Plaza in Boyle Heights on Monday night. The balladeers milled about in baseball caps and heavy winter jackets, dragging on cigarettes, sipping hot atole, and played their sones and ballads for no one but Santa Cecilia.

Well into the night, they huddled around the simple altar to the patron saint of musicians.

Some were praying for their very survival.

“This is our home base; it’s the womb of all the mariachis in the United States,” said Victor Garcia, a 43-year-old vihuela player from Mexico City. “This is where our work is. This is where everyone comes to hire us. We don’t want them to kick us out.”


If there is anything more forlorn than an un-hired mariachi, it is a homeless one.

But that could be the fate of some of the itinerant Mexican musicians who, like countless others before them, came to Los Angeles with little more than their instruments and a passion for the music of the mariachi.

They congregate at the Boyle Hotel, a dark brick building erected in 1889 that for decades has served as the unofficial way station for mariachis who arrive from the Mexican heartland on their way to San Francisco, Chicago, New York and places in between.

They make their living easing homesickness and serenading wedding guests. They honor a death with mournful tunes such as “Amor Eterno.” They greet the dawn of someone’s birthday with “Las Mananitas.”

Most get by paying the cheap weekly rents at the Boyle Hotel and surrounding buildings, which keep them near the triangle-shaped plaza where mariachis can be hired any time of day.

But as a new owner makes major interior improvements to the building’s units, rents are rising, and Garcia and others who live there say that they may have to move out.

“Here comes the work, and right away you run upstairs, get dressed, and you’re ready, ‘Vamonos,’ ” said mariachi Gregorio Munoz. “You’re missing an element [to the band], and you run up there and find someone, quick.”


A Spanish evangelical congregation bought the building in March, and since then, contractor Allen Golden has renamed it Vista de la Plaza and embarked on a plan to make the building cleaner, safer and more attractive.

His crews have repainted, rewired, refloored, repiped and remodeled several of the units after decades of neglect. The old paint contains lead, and rodents are common in the building.

Only one man was evicted for failing to pay rent on time, said Golden, who added that not all rents have been raised.

But Juan R. Ramos, a Montebello-based lawyer looking into the matter for the tenants, said the evicted mariachi had not been given adequate notice, possibly because of a language barrier. He called the eviction just one example of Golden’s efforts to gradually alter the make-up of the building’s tenants.

“We feel like it’s a constructive eviction, because of the way the construction is ongoing -- some of the people can’t stand it, so they leave,” Ramos said. “Some have been threatened with rent increases, and that if they don’t like it, they can leave.”

For his part, Golden said he would make no apologies for trying to beautify the old hotel and a nearby apartment building, also used by mariachis, which is owned by the same group.


He has denied intimidating or harassing any tenants, pointing out that he chose to subsidize improvements without increasing the rent for an elderly woman in a recently renovated unit.

Golden said he helped relocate one of the hotel’s commercial tenants -- a hair salon -- around the corner to a space he said is nicer than the dingy, cramped space it once occupied.

“We want to build places that you could get in Santa Monica, on the Westside,” Golden said Tuesday inside the new salon, its gleaming wooden floor reflecting the fresh yellow paint on the walls. “We don’t try to build barrio facilities here.”

The planned extension of the Metro Gold Line just below Mariachi Plaza could draw new businesses, Golden said. The changes to the neighborhood, he said, are inevitable.

“We are certainly not on any campaign of any sort to displace mariachis from the place where they’re living,” Golden said. But he said mariachis earn enough to handle a rent increase, adding, “If they do not think this a good place for them to live, they are certainly free to leave.”

Elias Valdivias Zaragoza, 52, a vihuela player who lives in the adjacent apartment building on 1st Street, stayed at the Boyle Hotel when he arrived in Los Angeles from a tiny ranch in the Mexican state of Jalisco. He and his 29-year-old son, Juan, also a mariachi, pay $120 a week for a space where workers have ripped open walls and part of his ceiling.


Mariachis, Zaragoza said, live off their music. They don’t do heavy day labor work because they must protect their fingers. In most cases, they picked up their instruments as children and teenagers and never stopped.

“This work is varied,” Zaragoza said. “Sometimes I make $1,000 a month, sometimes much less.... I just pay my rent, eat, sleep, and everything else goes to my kids” in Mexico.

After months of claims and counterclaims, orders and meetings with housing officials and Los Angeles City Councilman Antonio Villaraigosa, the Boyle Hotel mariachis took their case to the public on Tuesday, during the annual Santa Cecilia celebration and Mass that draws musicians from throughout Southern California.

Organizers dubbed the festival a “musical protest” for the Boyle Hotel mariachis.

Hundreds of onlookers sang along with mariachis.

“Behind this symbol, the plaza, there is another symbol,” Father Luis Angel Nieto of the Resurrection Catholic Church told the crowd.

“It’s the building where many of you first arrived. Today, many of you have moved on to other places, thank God. But many still there are being intimidated.... What hurts one, hurts everyone.”

Some mariachis cheered, and the priests began blessing players and their instruments. Then the musicians lifted their violins, guitarrillas and trombones and together began playing the old mariachi standard “Mi Virgen Ranchera.”


As the sounds set off a tangible vibration through the crowd, a few mariachis released a flock of white doves.