“When we present ourselves in a traditional environment, like a mariachi festival, I still fear backlash.”

Carlos Samaniego,

Director and Founder of Mariachi Arcoiris de Los Angeles

Credit: Mariachi Arcoiris


I’ve been doing music since I was a young child. I come from a musical family; my father is a musician, even though not a trained one per se. He never studied music, but he grew up with rock and roll from the 50s and 60s. My uncle´s brother was actually in a very famous rock n´ roll group in Mexico, where they would do covers of songs by the Rolling Stones, the Beatles, and all those groups. They performed in Spanish and also put on some original songs as well. Anyway, my grandfather was a mariachi musician in the northern part of Mexico, specifically the northern state of Sonora which borders Arizona. So, I was brought up singing this music.


When I came to the United States, I went to a middle school where they offered a mariachi program. I remember passing by this music class one day and being so surprised about hearing mariachi music at the school. I turned back to see what it was about and knew right away, that I wanted to be a part of this. So I went up to the teacher and told him that I wanted to join. He told me, as a requirement to join the group, everyone needed to play an instrument – and I said, “Well, I’ll learn how to play whatever you need”. As it turned out, their Guitarrón player was about to move on to high school, so they needed a replacement for his position. At first, I was totally into it, because I was excited to learn how to play something, but as time went on, I didn´t like as much. I eventually switched to violin when I went to high school. I focused for a long time on violin studies and fell in love with the sound. I auditioned for the Los Angeles County High School for the Arts and got in as a violin major, all while I still played mariachi music. It just brought me so much joy – and provided income for me in teenage years through gigs we did on the weekends.

Later on, I got my degree in music and came out of the closet. Coming out of the closet in the Mariachi world and Mexican culture is very difficult in a sense of toxic masculinity. It’s very traditional and very conservative. The musicians didn’t know what to do with me, so sometimes I got mistreated, bullied, and people would talk behind my back. I was always trying to prove myself; to be a better musician, a better singer, or better at just everything. And it seemed like nothing was ever good enough. It was around that time, that I wanted to be with other gay folks. My campus had a Gay and Lesbian Alliance where they would organize a week of pride events. One of those events was going to be a mock wedding, which was more like a protest, because back then in 2000, same sex marriage wasn’t allowed. People would pretend to get married and have this wedding in protest. And because I went to a very Latino heavy campus, they had a budget and knew that I played Mariachi professionally, I thought out loud and said, “Wouldn’t it be great if it was a gay Mariachi?”.

 

They loved the idea and I started to call people. My friends asked their friends and we formed the Mariachi Arcoiris – Arcoiris means rainbow, so rainbow Mariachi – and we performed for this one event. It was a success. People came from Fresno, from San Diego and other places, mostly gay men, but also people who were not gay, but wanted to support our mission. Because of the flyers we created for the event, the manager of a gay Latino nightclub heard about us and wanted hire us for his club twice a week. This went on for a few months, but I was really young and inexperienced as a director, so after a couple months it kind of fizzled out, but it definitely planted the seed.

 

At some point I switched from classical violin to classical singing and I wanted to be an opera singer. That’s why I lived in Italy and in New York, and all the while I performed at Mariachi professionally. Whether it be here in Southern California or somewhere else. I performed with several different groups and encountered different moments of negativity, homophobia and all these things. Every time there would be an incident like that, I would always think about how it would be to go back and have my own band. I don’t even remember what it was that broke the camel’s back, but I had enough, and I said “It´s time! I need to do it, because I need it! I need a safe space, as an openly gay man, playing Mariachi music.” And I was sure, I wasn´t the only one going through this. There had to be other people feeling the same way.

 

Credit: Mariachi Arcoiris

I created the group in 2014 as a haven and safe space for me and other LGBTQ+ Mariachi musicians. And the first person I called was my dearest friend, Natalia, who is the first transgender woman in the history of mariachi. She was a part of the original group that I had created in the year 2000, but back then she hadn´t transitioned yet. At that time, she identified as a gay boy. We started with a small group of five musicians, now there´s 11 of us. We’ve traveled to other states and also played internationally in Italy, Spain or Mexico City. It’s really amazing to think about the opportunities that we’ve gotten, and the ones we continue to get.

 

It was pretty difficult at the beginning, which is usual for every band, but we had to deal with the additional fact that we’re an LGBTQ+ Mariachi band. For example, it was difficult to get hired for a very specific and important event, that´s happening every year. December 12th is the day of the Virgin of Guadalupe, which is the patron Saint of the Americas. It’s about the Virgin Mary when she appeared to the indigenous people of Mexico. This day is an important day, not only for Catholics, but also for Mariachis. Mariachi is the go-to-ensemble for the whole day of festivities; whether it be in the church for mass, or at people’s homes. They build altars and there’s tons of music devoted to this day. Before having my own group, I was used to having tons of work that day with whatever group I was working with. And then I started to go out with my own band, and we just wouldn´t get hired. It was a big disappointment, because we were also financially depended on that day.


In our first year, in 2014, there was a committee, that reached out to me from Orange County and asked me, what we would charge for a performance. I gave her all the details, including a link to our website. A couple of days later, she got back to me and said they couldn´t hire us, simply because of what we would represent. She said, if it were up to her, she would hire us, but she got overruled. That was very disappointing. It was never about the music; it was just the fact that we were LGBTQ+.  In the years after that, little by little, it got better and we got hired more with different Catholic churches. I feel like it always depends on who’s heading it. Some priests are more liberal than others. Since then, as churches got more modern, accepting, and more liberal, LGBTQ+ has it easier to find a place among those festivities, but it definitely took a while. When we present ourselves in a traditional environment though, like a mariachi festival, I still fear backlash. We’ve only gotten praised and goodness, because I am really strict with the musicians, about how we have to present ourselves – musically above all.


When a story about us is published in Latin America, we still do get backlash and people say negative things about us. And that’s okay. I accept that. I know that that’s going to happen and I was aware of that, from the moment that I created this group. People argue why we have to mention that we are advocating for LGBTQ+. Why does it matter? Why do they have to keep saying that they´re LGBTQ+? What matters is the music. And ironically, that’s what I used to argue, when people would pick on me for being openly gay. I’m a musician, just like you, I’m just I’m trying to make a living. And now it’s feels like, they’re using that against us. My response to that is: because visibility creates normality. We have to put a label on it, we have to say who we are, because we have to create that visibility. And we have to show it, and show it, and show it and tell the world who we are, so that this is something that becomes normal after a while. Long time ago, seeing a same sex couple holding hands on the street was scandalous, and people were horrified. After years and years and years of seeing it, it became a normality and it got accepted in today´s society. It´s the same reason why our group exists.


Even though the biggest part of our group is homosexual, and we got one transgender musician, it´s not a criteria to be a part of it; everyone is welcome here. In fact, we have one straight person in the group. I think it would be hypocritical of me to do that, just because I was not accepted back then into certain groups, because I was openly gay. So I wouldn’t do that to anybody else. That would totally defeat the purpose. What we do is representing the LGBTQ+ community, and the one person who is straight on our group, is an ally. He’s amazing and we love having him. He loves being in our group and I feel like, at times he protects us against the naysayers.


Above all, I will say the music comes before everything else. That’s the reason why we came together.

I feel that the space that we provide is for the musicians, but the reach is far more than that, meaning, we also provide the space for our audiences. They feel safe by the type of show that we give, or the type of environment that we provide, while we’re performing. Also, there are young people who have reached out and said that we are an example to them. It turns out that we’re role models to younger people. There are parents of teenagers who have written to us and said that their daughter just came out as transgender and that Natalia is like her role model. People who live in small towns of Mexico see what we do here and feel empowered by us. They finally come out of the closet and let their family know who they really are. All of that is extremely powerful. This was what I wanted, because it´s about more, than just making music. This should be a part of normality and it shouldn’t be a question, if you can play music or get hired for an event, just based on your sexual orientation.

I have another job which I consider my day job. I am an interpreter and I work for the courts for the state of California. But Mariachi is something that I’ve done my whole life. For some time, I’ve done it, solely because I didn´t have any other type of income. Other times I do it amongst other things.

But I will say that directing this group is a full-time job. I’m always very tired. And I work every single day, seven days a week. I also teach at a university one day a week, so I’m very busy. As far our musicians go: Some of them have day jobs and perform the Mariachi on the side. Others doing it as their main job. So it really depends on everybody individually.


There are times throughout the year where it does get very busy and it´s very consuming. Our musicians were aware of that from the beginning and had to decide early on, if it´s compatible with their lifestyle and if they´re will to make space for it. But of course, I try to be understanding as well, when things come up. After all, people have personal lives, families, and they need to go on a vacation.


We rehearse at least once a week and we have gigs generally every week on Saturdays on Sundays.

Sometimes we would get additional days during the week. We have a study place where we perform on Sunday evenings, which is actually the gay club that I mentioned before. We do a lot of private performances, whether they be weddings, birthday parties or funerals. Whether they be straight, same sex, or queer weddings, we do it all. Now we get hired for a pride event for the grand opening of an LGBT center and all of these events, where before they would have never even considered hiring Mariachi. This is our chance to show them what beautiful Mariachi music is like, because if they’re not Mexican, maybe they think about Mexican music as the Mexican hat dance, de la cucaracha or whatever. It’s way more than that, it’s beautiful. We have beautiful arrangements and a great group that rehearses hard and everyone’s really disciplined.


www.mariachiarcoiris.com

@mariachiarcoiris

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