Competition Heats Up at Mariachi Plaza

Many Mariachi musicians who go to the plaza to find work are competing against others who wait in the plaza. However, other musicians bypass the competition and get the job.

The sun beats down on their head and sweat rolls down their face as they wait for hours for someone to grace their presence. They get there at 9 a.m. fully dressed in a thick beaded traditional uniform and won’t leave the area until the sun sets. They spend their day waiting and hoping someone will offer them a job to pay next month’s rent.

This is the life of a typical Mariachi player who comes to Mariachi Plaza in Boyle Heights to find work.

Landing a job in Los Angeles is becoming more difficult with budget cuts and Mariachi musicians in downtown Los Angeles are feeling the heat, literally. A cultural profession is becoming more competitive as the economy becomes worse, according to Mariachi musicians.

"It is very competitive," said Antolin Ortega, a Mariachi member of Mis Mariachis y Yo. "Not that many groups here know the songs. If we know the song exactly, we should play it."

A look into the culture of Mariachi music and the impact it has on Mariachi Plaza in Boyle Heights.

About 30 Mariachi musicians gather around the Gold Line Metro Station in Mariachi Plaza every day during the week to be hired for a job. Most of the musicians are from Mexico and familiar with popular Mariachi songs, however, Ortega noticed interested clients coming to the Plaza aren't able to afford prices music groups charge.

“The economy is very slow now and that is the reason I don't have a job," he said.

He said while he isn't out in the plaza looking for potential clients, he is trying to get part-time jobs to make up for the needed cash to pay his monthly bills.

He wishes to spend his life playing music, but this decline in jobs sets him back because he needs to do extra work to break even. Due to the low demand for Mariachi groups, he said he spends his week doing labor jobs like cleaning or sweeping and dedicates his weekends to find Mariachi gigs with his multi-male group.

At the plaza, female and male musicians dress from head to toe in a traditional Mariachi uniform and are prepared with an instrument in hand ready to perform.

Potential clients interested in hiring Mariachi groups for parties, funerals or other special events come to the plaza to mingle with groups of bass, trumpet and violin players. Each music group offers a special rate per hour to play depending on how many musicians the client wants.

Mariachi musicians and a local restaurant owner have mixed feelings about Metropolitan Transportation Authority's plan to upgrade Mariachi Plaza and are worried this will effect Mariachi culture in the area.

Ortega says a standard group of three Mariachi players is priced around $300 per hour and typically gets hired for three hours. For other Mariachi groups the prices and hours vary. However, these past two months, these musicians were left waiting in the heat for hours without a single client interested in the service.

Ortega knows what it is like to spend days standing under the sun waiting to find a Mariachi gig to pay his next bill. He explained how every music group possesses a certain skill level and when an interested client enters the plaza, the competition begins.

Ortega came to California after leaving his home in Guadalajara in 1971. He grew up in a family of uncles and cousins involved with Mariachi groups. He began learning Mariachi music at his church when he was a little kid.

From years of experience, he feels he is well-educated and able to play hundreds of songs on the bass, violin and banjo. He said this knowledge sets him apart from other Mariachi members competing for the same job.

However, Juan Jose Almaguer, a Mariachi musician, possesses the same skill level as Ortega and has weekly gigs at two restaurants and a church. The one thing that sets Almaguer apart from Ortega is the use of social media.

Almaguer explained how hard it was to get Mariachi jobs before, but he has found that using social media like Facebook and YouTube to promote videos of his group playing helped them book jobs.

“It’s a little different,” Almaguer laughed. “You know some Mariachi play at the Plaza while they wait for people, but we don’t do that.”

While musicians at the Plaza are out in the hot sun all suited up, Almaguer is home at his computer posting videos and interested clients are finding them.

“People call every week, every month,” he said. “I don’t need to go to the Plaza in Boyle Heights.”