Immigrant street musicians turn adversity into art to earn their daily bread

Elías Flores and César Villanueva perform at the corner of Union and 7th Street.
Elías Flores, from El Salvador, left and César Villanueva, from Guatemala, perform at the corner of Union and 7th streets.
(Soudi Jiménez / Los Angeles Times )

When Elías Flores and César Villanueva team up on guitar and accordion, they stir feelings of joy, pride and melancholy in their listeners.

Their instruments vibrate like living beings in the hands of these artists, who roam the streets and restaurants of Los Angeles in search of customers giving tips for their itinerant musical offerings, in which the classic ballads of Mexican vernacular music stand out.

“We have many, it could be more than 100 songs,” said Flores, 56, who plays guitar and sings backup, during a tour of the Westlake neighborhood. Many of the most requested tunes in his repertoire were immortalized by the likes of José Alfredo Jiménez, Pedro Infante, Javier Solís, Vicente Fernández, Antonio Aguilar and Cornelio Reyna, among other demi-gods of ranchera and norteña music.


César Villanueva, originally from Guatemala, plays accordion in the duet.
(Soudi Jiménez / Los Angeles Times )

“They ask for lots of José Alfredo and Vicente Fernández,” Villanueva, 58, added in his high-pitched voice as he ambled to a restaurant at nightfall. Cold weather was penetrating the city, but that did not stop the musicians from going out to earn their keep.

The COVID-19 pandemic and the recession it triggered have posed new challenges for the musicians. The predominantly Latino and immigrant neighborhoods where the men ply their trade have been among the hardest hit by the virus. People who’ve lost jobs can’t afford $10 to hear “De Qué Manera Te Olvido” or “Luna de Octubre,” or $25 for a trio of beloved tunes.

“If we can grab a client in a place, we stay there,” said Flores, 58.

As daylight faded, the two men could be seen at the corner of Wilshire Boulevard and Witmer Street, both wearing black cowboy hats. One kept his mask in his pocket, while the other placed his mask on his chin as he lifted his voice in song.

The men stroll and perform Monday through Friday, typically from noon to 8 or 10 at night. On Saturdays and Sundays they play in various mariachi ensembles.

Flores, originally from El Salvador, met Villanueva, born in Guatemala, four years ago. After playing with different musicians, two years ago they formed their duet. Besides guitar and accordion, they also have mastered the violin, guitarrón and vihuela.

“This is the method that God has given us,” said the native of the Guatemalan province of San Marcos, where he started playing guitar when he was 12. At the age of 21, he says, he resolved to devote himself entirely to art, shortly after moving to Chiapas, Mexico.

Flores first learned to play the violin, accompanying services at Catholic church of his town, Metapán, in western El Salvador. Before arriving in Los Angeles in 1989, fleeing the country’s devastating 12-year civil war, he had learned to play the guitar. But when he settled here no musical group would take him on.

“I saw the groups [that played] in businesses, and I asked for a chance and they didn’t give me one,” said Flores, who has worked in construction, furniture sales and at car washes and tortilla shops.

Then in 1995 he and a musician friend formed a group and began to play on weekends at restaurants, parties and wherever they were welcome.

But when construction work started drying up around the time of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Flores turned to making music fulltime. He and Villanueva now orbit around a handful of reliable venues.

“We go to different places, there are like 10 or 15,” said Flores, a resident of the Westlake neighborhood for 25 years. Mostly those places are restaurants, where the owners have given them permission to play for tips from the diners; for requests, they charge their regular rates.

One recent evening, after playing along Wilshire Boulevard, the musicians moved west to 7th Street, aiming at a Guatemalan restaurant. To their surprise, the place was closed. So they fired up their instruments at the corner of 7th and Union streets, taking advantage of the lighting from a young couple’s taco stand.

“How much for song?” asked a young man at the taqueria.

“Ten dollars,” Villanueva replied.

“Would you accept three tacos?” the merchant asked.

“No,” the musician responded, apologetically, “we’ve already had dinner.”

But the musicians obliged anyway, and sang a song for free, catching the attention of several pedestrians who took the opportunity to record the moment on their cellphones. Although it was not yet 6, already the streets were dark and the cold was bearing down.

Before moving on from the taqueria, the musicians each took a hot rice pudding.

“We don’t wrinkle our faces at all,” Villanueva said in Spanish, meaning the duo are happy to get work wherever they can, no complaints. On rainy days they take umbrellas to protect the instruments.

“We always work, be it cold or hot, we always need to earn our daily bread,” he said.

But how can a wandering musician defend against a killer virus? In March, the men were forced to stay home in the wake of the pandemic. All told, they didn’t work for three months.

“There has been a very big downturn,” Villanueva said.

On an average day, each musician can earn up to $ 150 for eight hours of work, but another day they might earn only $60. During the three months of the quarantine, each of them lost about $2,000.

“For everyone, there was damage,” said Flores, who was able to scrape by on his small savings.

Starting in June, as some restaurants tentatively resumed operations, the musicians returned to their haunts. They try to respect diners by not intruding or pressing them. So as not to pester the same customers, they change their route every day.

“Once we were in a restaurant and a girl who was eating there came and said, ‘And why don’t you go to work?’” Flores recalled.

“This is an honest job,” he asserted. “The most beautiful thing is that you do what you like and you get paid.”

Even now, as another wave of the virus threatens to shut down more restaurants and overwhelm daily life, the musicians have no thought of giving up their art.

“This music thing is like an addiction,” Villanueva said. “A healthy addiction.”