San Diego mariachi bands struggle through the pandemic, helping to relieve heartache

Mariachi groups in San Diego have shifted their performances because of COVID. Some are still performing for small gatherings, outside homes and for funerals. Mariachi groups are a big part of how Latino families in San Diego celebrate birthdays, weddings and honor loved ones at funerals.


For many, it’s the sound of home. It’s the music their parents danced to at weddings, teenage siblings played as they healed from a heartbreak, and uncles crooned, out of tune, while drinking tequila.

It can be cheerful, patriotic, sad, desperate and hopeful. Mariachi music transports many listeners to a memory of a country they left behind, a long-lost love or happy times with family and friends.

For a while it seemed the music, along with the talented musicians who play it, was becoming another casualty of the COVID-19 pandemic. Early last year, numerous weddings, quinceañeras and other large events that usually featured mariachi bands were canceled.


Many of San Diego’s mariachi bands lost work and were faced with hanging up their sombreros de charro and putting away their instruments.

But now, as some businesses reopen, people begin getting vaccinated and families get creative about ways to celebrate, things are picking up.

And the wholesome music of mariachi is playing again all over San Diego at drive-through birthday parties, small outdoor weddings and COVID-19 funerals, band members say.

“The music touches the heart,” said Dulce Perez, leader of Mariachi Divinas from San Diego. “It makes you feel connected to your roots.”

A mariachi band plays as a man and a girl dance near flower-covered tables at an outdoor venue.
Ariana Gonzalez Campos dances with her father as they celebrate her quinceañera in Escondido, Calif., a year after it was originally scheduled.
(Alejandro Tamayo / San Diego Union-Tribune)

This time, to keep working, mariachi bands are replacing plaza performances, corporate events and large celebrations with smaller gatherings.

Perez’s group keeps busy by playing at funerals — mostly related to COVID-19.

“Even though it’s tough, and it’s a sad moment,” she said, “at the same time it’s a celebration and remembering what songs they used to love.”


Perez, who started her rare all-female mariachi group in 2012, has been singing the music for almost 18 years.

When the pandemic started, the band’s scheduled performances at the San Diego Convention Center, Viejas Casino and large wedding venues were canceled. Since then, half the group’s six members left because of the unsteady work, she said: “We lost our jobs.”

Mariachi Divinas has become a co-ed band of six players. The band plays three to four funerals a week, compared with about one a week before the pandemic, Perez said.

Even though it’s a poignant time, families will often request upbeat songs, she said, because those happy songs remind them of their loved ones.

The wife of an ailing Anaheim locksmith hires a band to lift his spirits.

Feb. 15, 2021

“Mariachi is something that brings the family a sense of melancholy,” she said, “and they can remember and reminisce on the person’s life.”

Mariachi music has been around for more than 100 years. The music’s popularity outside Mexico has grown so much that K-12 schools and universities have created mariachi music programs across the United States and the world.


The size of a mariachi ensemble varies, but it usually includes singers, violinists, and trumpet and guitar players. Performers wear charro suits, elegant outfits decorated with embroidery and silver or gold metal buttons.

Three people in charro suits play violin; one sings.
Mariachi Divinas perform at an outdoor birthday celebration on Friday in Escondido, Calif.
(Alejandro Tamayo/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Mariachi’s growth can be attributed to its connection to Latino culture and heritage, said Serafin Paredes, director of the University of San Diego’s mariachi ensemble, Mariachi Toreros de USD.

“For immigrants, the only thing we take with us is our memories of our countries, our music and food,” Paredes said. “Anything that resembles Mexico, we love it and appreciate it.”

The music’s versatility also is the reason it resonates with Latinos and others. It can be played at weddings, birthday parties, festivals and funerals, he said.

Although gatherings among large groups are still discouraged, some families have gotten creative to celebrate milestones and honor loved ones with mariachi music.


Mariachi Estrellas de Chula Vista, a 12-member band, recently played at a birthday celebration where they performed outside. Neighbors walked out to their lawns to enjoy the music as a community, rather than an individual party.

“Even though people are keeping their distance, with the outdoor performances it feels like a community is coming together,” said Jacqueline Sierra, a violin player with Mariachi Estrellas de Chula Vista.

Three people, seated and wearing masks, play violins.
Mariachi Estrellas de Chula Vista practices on Tuesday at a residence in San Diego.
(Alejandro Tamayo / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Large bands like Mariachi Estrellas de Chula Vista have been accepting jobs that they wouldn’t have before the pandemic. The band is doing more serenades — short performances usually done for couples who are getting engaged, or for Valentine’s Day and Mother’s Day.

“We are doing the jobs that we can find,” said bandleader Missael Vazquez.

Tuesday evening, the band played “El Son de la Negra,” a popular song often played by mariachi groups, at a home in the Ocean View Hills neighborhood of San Diego. The dining room table was filled with sheet music for songs the band was practicing before its next job.

Vazquez said that although it was nice to return to work, the way families are experiencing mariachi music is not the same as it was before the coronavirus, in part because of social distancing.


“It has affected the way people enjoy the music because they can’t dance, and you can tell some people feel a little uncomfortable,” he said. “They still enjoy the music but not like before.”

Perez said most clients hosted events outdoors, but there are still some who organize indoor events.

Although she makes sure everyone in the band follows coronavirus safety guidelines by staying distanced from party guests and wearing masks as much as possible during the performance, it’s still scary, she said.

Mariachi band members wear masks except for the trumpet players, who remove their masks to play their parts.

Dozens of mariachi musicians across the country have died of COVID-19, according to news reports. KNBC-TV Channel 4 recently reported that at least 20 mariachis in Los Angeles have died since the pandemic began.

It is unknown how many mariachi musicians in San Diego have died.

A closeup of a man, eyes closed, playing the violin.
“The music touches the heart,” says Dulce Perez, leader of Mariachi Divinas, whose members are shown performing at a celebration Friday in Escondido, Calif.
(Alejandro Tamayo / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Paredes said many musicians relied on mariachi performances to feed their families, so not working because of fear of getting sick is not an option. Many of these musicians find it difficult to collect unemployment because they work as independent contractors.

“It’s the only option they have to make money,” Paredes said. “They need to play.”

Even large, well-established mariachi groups that used to play massive concerts around the world are hurting because of the pandemic, Paredes said.

“If those people are suffering,” he said, “just imagine the average musician in the neighborhood.”

Yet people still want to learn to play mariachi music. Every year, Paredes organizes a mariachi conference for students in San Diego that hundreds of musicians from the area and other countries attend, including many who mentor new musicians.

This year, the event will take place online. The free virtual conference, scheduled for Friday, will connect students with mariachi musicians from all over the world.