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Mariachi Music Struggles in Downbeat US Economy

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Elizabeth Lee

The United States has long been seen as the land of opportunity for many Mexicans looking for work, including traditional Mariachi musicians.  But the economy has changed that.  The effects of the economic downturn on the Mariachi industry can be seen at a type of day labor center near downtown Los Angeles called "Mariachi Plaza," where musicians wait to be hired.

The musical tradition started in 19th century Mexico and has migrated to Los Angeles, one of the urban Meccas of mariachi music outside of its homeland.

The fortunate musicians play at restaurants, while others gather under the hot sun at a square just east of downtown Los Angeles, called Mariachi Plaza, to look for work.  While they're waiting, some sit at an outdoor cafe and chat with each other.

"This is a job, the only job I have now and I've been doing it for 54 years," notes musician David Martin.  He and other musicians, dressed in their silver-studded traditional "charro" outfits, come to Mariachi Plaza regularly, hoping to be hired by families to play at weddings and other special events.  But he says the economy has hurt business.

"…very very severely," notes David.  "It's gone down more than 50 per cent. It's way way down, and that's caused some Mariachis to have to leave and go back to Mexico. Others just to give up, others just to hang on by their nails."


"This cannot supplement my whole income. I do have a regular job as well," Carlos Pacheco explains.  He works at the airport, and can only play Mariachi music part time, because he needs the extra money to buy a house.

"Anything that affects the incomes of the general public affects us, because if they have less money they're not going to get a musician," adds Pacheco.

David Martin says when the economy was good, as many as eight musicians would be hired to play at a private function.

Many of the veteran musicians say the economy has created another problem.

"Some people are under-charging, and some people are coming who don't really play very well at all," adds Martin.  "They give it a bad name then the public thinks 'oh they are not professional' then they don't hire them."

Martin says some of the musicians recently formed a mariachi union.  Its members would promise to charge a minimum of $50 an hour for each musician.  But some musicians are willing to work for less.

"If you can get the hours I wouldn't mind a reduction $5, $10, it's not much of a big difference," notes Pacheco.  But he adds that the fear is, if the public gets used to paying a lower price, they may continue to expect it when the economy improves in a few years.

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