Hundreds of mariachis come to Boyle Heights in Los Angeles from across the United States and Mexico, in search of work. They gather at Mariachi Plaza, a small park with a bandstand and kiosk that holds a special place in their hearts because it was donated by the Mexican State of Jalisco, the birthplace of this music. They wait for people to call or stop by to hire them.
But the pandemic hit mariachi bands brutally. Most work dried up, as events were cancelled through the spring and summer of 2020. Some musicians performed at gatherings that defied California’s shelter-in-place rules and social distancing protocols. Without any other source of income, musicians felt they had no choice but to accept jobs even at the risk of coronavirus exposure.
More than 50 mariachi musicians have died of COVID-19 over the past year, said Israel Moreno, president of the Organization of Independent Mariachis of California (OMICAL) in Boyle Heights. About 80% of the group’s roughly 270 members have gotten infected, he said. OMICAL members have rallied to collect donations of food and money, and the group has helped grieving families.
“We would give a box of food to the mariachis every week,” Moreno said. “For those who passed away we would look for their families to let them know or helped with donations to repatriate the body to their country.”
Business has picked up for mariachis since the worst days of the pandemic. But it will take a long time for the community to fully recover from the physical, emotional and financial damage.
“I thought we were going to be OK”
Alex Cisneros has worked as a mariachi for over 25 years. He is proud to say he has supported his family with this job.
Cisneros, the leader of Mariachi Nuevo Guadalajara, said the band was hired to perform at a house event in celebration of Father’s Day last June. There was a crowd of a few dozen people. At the time the state prohibited gatherings but police didn’t enforce the rule at residences. Cisneros plays the violin and sings.
Three days before the event, the six musicians who planned to attend got tested for the coronavirus to make sure they were not infected. All of them tested negative.
“I thought we were going to be OK,” Cisneros said.
When they arrived at the party, they tried to keep some distance from the crowd. But as they continued to play, guests pushed in closer.
“We kept moving back but there was a point where we couldn’t move anymore,” Cisneros said.
Singing and playing brass instruments such as trumpets, a mariachi staple, are considered especially risky for coronavirus transmission because they release respiratory particles through the air.
“There were so many people when I arrived that doctors told me I was still breathing and that they couldn’t take me in.”
ALEX CISNEROS, LEADER OF MARIACHI NUEVO GUADALAJARA
As he was driving home, Cisneros felt a dry cough and his throat hurt. Initially he ignored the symptoms, thinking his throat was sore from singing.
He went to bed, but by the next day he had fever, diarrhea, and extreme pain in his bones. He was shivering and vomited. He called his bandmates and cautioned them.
As days passed, his health deteriorated. His headaches worsened and he started having harsh pain in his lungs. When he could no longer handle the pain, he went to a hospital near his home in Boyle Heights.
“But there were so many people when I arrived that doctors told me I was still breathing and that they couldn’t take me in,” he said. “While I was at the hospital I had a strong headache and pain on my left arm. I thought at that moment I was going to die.”
He tested positive for the coronavirus, but, unable to get proper medical care at the hospital, Cisneros went home. His whole family became infected. They were sick for about two months, but their symptoms were lighter than his.
Cisneros said that when the pandemic started, a friend who was part of another group but had no job started working with his band. A few months later, the man died of COVID. Cisneros said the news was devastating for him, but he’s thankful that Mariachi Nuevo Guadalajara did not suffer major losses.
Back to work — performing at funerals
The hiring of mariachis began increasing last fall. But instead of happy celebrations, most jobs were to play at funerals. For a while at the beginning of this year, some bands played at one funeral, or more, almost every day.
“Recently we played in a funeral at Rose Hills cemetery and we counted in a perimeter of about 100 meters eight funerals,” Israel Moreno said.
Francisco Hernandez, violinist of Mariachi Los Potrillos and vice president of OMICAL, said the worst part of playing at funerals is seeing a child mourn a parent or a grandparent.
“I really try to hold my own tears when I see them because their tears are real when they cry for their loved ones,” said Hernandez.
Hernandez said there has been so much demand to play at funerals that mariachis wish there were more hours during the day.
California dropped mask mandates on June 15. Cisneros said his band is booked mainly on weekends, and he is grateful that he has been able to go back to work.
But nearly a year after he contracted COVID-19, he still suffers from its effects. Although medical experts encourage people who’ve had COVID to get vaccinated, even if they have persistent symptoms, Cisneros has put it off because he fears he’ll have a bad reaction.
“I still have throat pain, my lungs hurt, and I think even my kidneys got damaged…I have a lot of headaches too,” he said. “I forget things a lot, my body aches and my bones hurt a lot when it’s cold.”
This article is part of The California Divide, a collaboration among newsrooms examining income inequity and economic survival in California. It was published by the USC Center for Health Journalism in collaboration with La Opinión.