As the sun beat down on him Tuesday while he marched with a crowd around Mariachi Plaza, Eduardo Rodriguez felt the urge to slip off his heavy, black mariachi suit. Then he remembered the words of his former teacher and mariachi icon, the late Natividad "Nati" Cano.
'"Always wear the complete suit,'" Rodriguez said. "It could be 100 degrees outside, "but if you have it on, you have to wear it with pride."
Rodriguez, 34, a full-time guitarrón player from Bakersfield who had been a student of Cano's in the late '90s, joined more than 200 people who were part of an annual procession and festival honoring Santa Cecilia, the patron saint of musicians. The event also commemorated Cano, who died of colon cancer last month.
Cano, 81, had led the renowned Los Angeles-based group Mariachi los Camperos de Nati Cano, which was considered one of the top mariachi ensembles in the country. He had set out to elevate the status of mariachi.
"He set a standard for mariachi.... You see mariachi at weddings and quinceañeras with their shirttails hanging out, buttons open, more of the stereotype. He showed us more of a professional setting," Rodriguez said. "When he put his suit on, that was Nati."
Cano also owned the restaurant La Fonda on Wilshire Boulevard, which became a hub for mariachi lovers and where people came to hear Mariachi los Camperos. Rodriguez and his friends opened for the band.
Tuesday's event started at about 7 a.m. and was expected to continue through most of the day.
Mariachi musicians and other people slowly walked several blocks around the plaza, catching the attention of doctors and nurses in powder-blue scrubs who came out on the balconies and outdoor stairways at White Memorial Medical Center and took videos with their phones, and neighbors who watched from their windows and porches. After the short parade, the crowd regrouped at the plaza for a religious ceremony led by a priest and punctuated by mariachi performances.
Small white tents were set up around the perimeter of the plaza, where vendors sold threaded bracelets in bright oranges, pinks and yellows, striped wool scarves, incense and other gifts. Nearby restaurants were packed with people, and street vendors set up stands to sell fruit, juices and Mexican snacks.
For many, such as Arnulfo Zepeda, 79, of Hacienda Heights, the day was filled with emotion, as bands played songs that conjured nostalgia for his Mexican homeland and love of God. Zepeda used to play the vihuela, a guitar-like instrument, in a mariachi band. He is retired now — his calluses long faded — but he still sings with feeling.
"When I'm singing, I'm crying," Zepeda said. "I don't have a good voice, but I have feeling."
Rodriguez said Cano taught him that playing and singing with feeling matters most to mariachi music.
"He helped me strive for the best and [taught me] 'don't stay in one place; always keep moving forward' in music," Rodriguez said, adding, "In life also."