How Mariachi Transcends Traditions From an Authentic Place
Updated: Oct 1, 2019
By Frank Rojas 9/30/19
Se me olvidaba que
ya habiamos terminado,
que nunca volveras,
que nunca me quisiste.
Se me olvido otra vez
que solo yo te quise.”
Singer and composer Juan Gabriel’s song, “Se Me Olvido Otra Vez” reached the number one spot on Mexican radio play in 1975. A live version of the song was covered in 1999 by Mexican rock group Mana, and went on to win the band a Latin Grammy. The song was then re-recorded in 2015 with fellow singer-songwriter Marco Antonio Solis for Gabriel’s duets album. Since its release and even after Gabriel's untimely death in 2016, his music has continued to transcend borders, generations, and sexual orientations.
There has been a long media fascination with the artist's sexuality. He never shied away from his flamboyant charro clothes and performances, as he had often stated that art is feminine. When asked by a journalist in an early 2000’s interview if the performer was gay, Gabriel responded sharply:
“They say that what you can see you don’t ask, son.”
Music is more than just an instrument of entertainment. There is a sense of emotional attachment to songs that one can relate to. Music can inspire, reminisce, heal, and connect. Like Juan Gabriel Mariachi Arcoiris, the world’s first and only LGBTQ mariachi, has found an audience in being authentically themselves in a musical genre that is deeply rooted in its Mexican tradition.
Carlos Samaniego grew up listening and loving Gabriel’s music. The artist had a deep level of influence on the mariachi director as he was someone he could relate to. He feels that there is something to be said about what Juan Gabriel did for LGBTQ representation. While Gabriel never officially came out as gay, he also never denied it.
“I would argue he’s (Gabriel) Mexico’s best and most famous singer-songwriter. He composed for so many different artists and he was gay. He was effeminate, flamboyant, and he was unapologetically himself.”
Mariachi is widely considered the quintessential folk music of Mexico. The musical genre is native to Mexican western regions, especially the state of Jalisco. Instruments include the guitarrón (a large bass guitar), the vihuela (a smaller-scale version of the guitarrón) the violin, trumpets, and a harp. The musicians wear what is the traje de charro or the “charro suit” which is composed of embroidered fitted pants, and a short jacket with a large bow-tie, high boots, and a sombrero. The uniform is meant to project a style of class and elegance.
Samaniego came out when he was in college, but found it more difficult to come out in the mariachi world.
Mariachi Arcoiris first began in 2000 while Samaniego was a sophomore at California State University, Los Angeles. During his time as a college student the mariachi player was a member of the campus’s gay and lesbian alliance organization. As part of the school’s pride week, they hosted a mock wedding event that served as a form of protest since marriage equality had not yet been legalized.
While in search of entertainment to take part in the wedding celebration, Samaniego suggested the idea of an all-gay mariachi. After a few calls were made amongst friends and friends of friends he was able to gather a group for this one-time performance. He named the group Mariachi Arcoiris in honor of the rainbow and its symbolism within the LGBTQ community.
After the success of the event, Samaniego was approached by the manager of a club in Hollywood and was offered a job to perform twice a week at his club. Samaniego was able to recruit some of the musicians he had played with that night, but had difficulty in finding a consistent group of LGBTQ mariachi players. The group played for a couple of months, but within less than a year they disbanded. Samaniego credits the inexperience of being a young director as the reasoning for that.
Years passed and Samaniego continued to play mariachi in various professional groups. But while he and the other players all shared a passion for mariachi, Samaniego felt misunderstood and disrespected. Samaneigo had already been openly out but found it difficult to share because of his sexual identity. In some incidents, he was even harassed and bullied, when after concerts his male counterparts would try to hook him up with women. It was those experiences and sentiments that led Samaniego back to the idea of an all-gay mariachi.
“I decided I wanted to form Mariachi Arcoiris again, but this time for a more personal reason where I wouldn't feel like I’d be the only mariachi musician that was going through that.”
In 2014 Samaniego returned to the same Hollywood club he had played at years ago and met with the new manager over the idea of an all LGBTQ mariachi. After their meeting, the mariachi was booked for a performance that would be a month away. The only problem was that there was no official Mariachi Arcoiris formed yet.
The first person Samaniego went to was his long time friend Natalia Melendez who he has known for over twenty years. Melendez is the first transgender woman in the history of mariachi. He knew her before, after, and during her transition. He felt she'd be a great addition to the group, not necessarily because she is transgender but because she is first and foremost an exceptional musician.
It was from there they were able to establish a solid group of five LGBTQ players for Mariachi Arcoiris. But there were still difficulties in the beginning stages of the mariachi. There were some events where Samaniego and Melendez would volunteer to not get paid in order for the group to land a gig. They struggled to build a clientele and get their name out to the public. But it all flourished because for Samaniego and the rest of Mariachi Arcoiris it has all been a labor of love.
“The reasons for me having this group is so that people like myself can be themselves and perform mariachi music and not have to worry about being made fun of."
Mariachi Arcoiris is currently made up of ten skilled LGBTQ musicians. Their performances are both lively and engaging, with even some of the players serenading audience members. They cover traditional songs but try not to change the gender pronouns that are found in the Spanish lyrics. Samaniego reasons that it is out of respect to the intention of the composer. What they do instead is change the singing roles between their male and female singers to reflect that they are a queer mariachi.
Since Mariachi Arcoris has formed the group has gone on to play all over California, across different states, and has recently performed in Spain. They released their first album, Los Arcoiris last year and hope to record a second album. Samaniego wants both sides of the border to know that there is mariachi being made out of a queer community.
“Yes we represent the Mexican culture to the LGBTQ community, but we also represent the LGBTQ community to the Mexican culture.”
Mariachi Arcoiris represents more than two cultures. They are at the intersection of what it means to be human and tell authentic stories through mariachi music. They are stories of love, loss, and resilience that have been told by the dominant culture for so long. Their music and performances are a reminder of the richness that comes from an authentic place.
Mariachi Arcoiris can be found playing at many events, celebrations, and even weddings.
For more information regarding where you can see them, the link to their website is here.