Promoter of Mariachi 5K run in Boyle Heights faces backlash over theme

Carlos Gaspar, organizer of Sunday's Mariachi 5K run, puts up a banner announcing the event as Gabriel Arana watches from Restaurant Santa Cecilia in Mariachi Plaza in Boyle Heights.
(Genaro Molina, Los Angeles Times)

The mariachi of Boyle Heights mostly live by a golden rule: No event is a bad event.

They play for funerals and quinceañeras, foreclosures and sex change celebrations.

But Sunday’s Mariachi 5K — where some runners undoubtedly will show up in mariachi garb, big sombreros and colorful serapes — is another matter.

Neighbors initially hoped that the run, which is slated to begin and end at historic Mariachi Plaza, could serve to promote Boyle Heights and bring in new business. But now the organizer is facing a backlash from those who think the theme makes a mockery of mariachi. Opponents are threatening to shut down the race.


Along 1st Street, everyone seems to have an opinion — especially the mariachi.

“We wear our suits with pride. They represent a culture, a nation,” said Arturo Ramirez, president of the Los Angeles United Mariachis Organization. “No one should ever come here and ridicule us in the streets.”

Ramirez’s group represents a number of mariachi who hustle daily for work at the plaza, striving to give them a voice and elevate their image. He’s concerned that plaza mariachi were not hired to play at the event, and thinks the race organizer is looking only to make money off of their tradition.

Promoter Carlos Gaspar says the trouble he’s facing has little do with his theme.

The former middle school teacher, who lives in Downey, has organized similar races (called Tacos and Beer) in Long Beach. Those events, he said, went smoothly and drew as many as 2,000 runners.

“Here, it’s all politics,” Gaspar said. “A few people … have gotten together to show that only people with power can hold events in this city.”

Gaspar said he decided to visit Boyle Heights at the suggestion of a friend. He saw Mariachi Plaza and was inspired.

“I’m from Jalisco, where mariachi come from,” Gaspar said. “I checked with my mom and my relatives. They all thought the theme was a good idea.”

He began applying for permits at the start of the summer, and said business owners signed on in support after he explained the mariachi theme.

Gaspar launched a Facebook page and created a colorful flier featuring cartoon guitars and trumpets running with sombreros and mustaches in the streets of Boyle Heights.

Registration for the race ranges from $35 to $50.

When people complained about a proposal to open a beer garden, he said, he canceled it. He also canceled a costume contest.

He said he didn’t hire plaza mariachi because he was able to get outside musicians for a much lower price.

A week before the event, Gaspar said, only 180 participants have registered. Several of his permits are still pending.

“I’ve spent so much time dealing with these issues, I haven’t had time to promote,” said Gaspar, adding that the race is costing him close to $20,000.

Out in the Mariachi Plaza one recent morning, Ramirez went around with a clipboard, collecting signatures to have the event canceled. That petition, along with another from business owners, will be submitted to Los Angeles City Council member Jose Huizar.

The council member’s office has expressed concern over the theme and plans to follow up with city agencies in charge of issuing race permits.

“We have to adhere to people’s opinions, and as it stands, this event does not have community support,” spokesman Rick Coca said.

On 1st Street, some businesses and mariachi said they would like to see the event take place.

Teodoro Cuevas, 74, thinks his fellow musicians are being too sensitive and too possessive of the plaza, which is a public space.

“These guys are always complaining about something,” the base player said. “This is a fun event and it’s free publicity for us. We should be grateful.”

A few steps away at La Casa del Mariachi, Jorge Tello, the mariachi’s tailor for more than 30 years, is trying to stay neutral.

He said he had no problem allowing Gaspar to place race fliers in his shop, and he doesn’t see how such an event could hurt his business.

But as a mariachi tailor — who often scolds local musicians if they look the least bit disheveled — his only hope is that the runners won’t get too out of control with their outfits.

“To a certain point,” he said, “the mariachi suit must always be respected.”

Twitter: @LATbermudez