Almost every day, musicians clad in traditional mariachi suits gather on the corner of First Street and Boyle Avenue, a hilly spot in Boyle Heights that overlooks the downtown Los Angeles skyline. There, the musicians jostle for a day’s work, hoping to attract the attention of customers, who know where to find them.
Once a year, however, the mariachis cast their rivalries aside. In honor of Santa Cecilia, patron saint of musicians, the intersection — which houses a Metro station dubbed Mariachi Plaza in their honor — becomes the site of a religious ceremony.
Shortly after dawn Tuesday, dozens of violinists, trumpeters and guitarists — including those who play the vihuela and guitarrón — made an arc around a sunflower-laden altar to Santa Cecilia placed behind the subway’s entryway. The mariachis mingled, hugged and shook hands before putting on a show for their patron saint.
Along with her bandmates, Natalie Pérez, a senior at Garfield High School who has been playing the guitar since she was 5, practiced before school for a year for the event. She came dressed for the part: long, embroidered black skirt and matching short jacket; white blouse; silk cloth tied into a bow.
Patricia Cisneros, a longtime resident of Boyle Heights who hails from the Mexican state of Michoacan, was not dressed for the occasion. Still, she asked if she could jump in and sing. The mariachis obliged.
“I come from a family of musicians,” she said, standing next to her son and daughter, both carrying guitars. Then, pointing to a red-haired guitarist among the hodgepodge of musicians, she added, “That’s my mom.”
There was added reason to celebrate this year. It is the 30th anniversary of Mariachi Plaza. Later in the day, several political dignitaries — including the Mexican consul in Los Angeles — were set to speak at the festivities.
In the crowd, grandparents wheeled their grandchildren in strollers or carried them on their shoulders. For most of the morning, they simply mouthed along. But when the mariachis played “Camino Real de Colima,” voices erupted into song.
Shortly before the procession for Santa Cecilia, the musicians divided themselves into sections. Instrument by instrument, they gathered in groups and, behind an image of their beloved saint, paraded past the iconic Mariachi Plaza kiosk, a gift from the Mexican state of Jalisco to Los Angeles.
As the procession made its way through residential streets of Boyle Heights, construction workers paused to appreciate and record them. The students of White Memorial Adventist School pressed their smiling faces against their schoolyard fence. Two-year-old Elza Franco and her mother are part of the all-female mariachi group Las Catrinas, based in Boyle Heights. Elza was clad in a long black skirt and violet blouse. She held her grandmother’s hand with one hand and with the other, clung to a tiny guitar.
Following the procession, the mariachis reconvened at Mariachi Plaza for an outdoor Mass in Santa Cecilia’s honor. To shield themselves from the afternoon sun, many in the audience pulled out umbrellas. Others squeezed into the shade. Later in the afternoon, a mist of rain started.
Parmenio Sanabria of Lincoln Heights came dressed in full mariachi garb. He had not started playing the trumpet until he was 40. Now 64, he makes his living as a member of Mariachi Gallos de Oro.
“This is something I look forward to all year,” said Sanabria. “Today we don’t compete. We just rejoice in the music.”