When Rudy Vásquez, Jr. read in an online forum that there was a new LGBTQ mariachi group being formed, he was immediately interested.
“I was intrigued because I’d never seen a group like it before,” said Vásquez, 29, and a resident of the City of San Fernando. “The mariachi world is a pretty small world. We get to find out about new groups fairly fast.”
That was in 2015. Vásquez Jr. would eventually get an invitation to play with the Mariachi Arcoiris de Los Angeles.
“Carlos (Samaniego) called me to help them out at [their] usual gig at Club Tempo,” he recalled. “When I heard them play, I was floored. They’re really good musicians.”
For Vásquez Jr., who comes from a family of mariachi musicians, the fact that Mariachi Arcoiris represented the LGBTQ community — his community — added to his desire to play with them.
It’s been two years, and Vasquez Jr., who plays the trumpet, is still with Mariachi Arcoiris de Los Angeles (Mariachi Rainbow of Los Angeles), the first openly LGBTQ mariachi in Los Angeles. So is Luis Gudiño, a guitarron player who also hails from San Fernando.
Mariachi groups have historically been associated with a macho culture. After all, the music was first played in cantinas and musicians wear the proud Mexican symbol — the Charro (horseman) outfit.
As new groups have formed that have included women, and the art form itself has gained it’s rightful respect, the image is evolving.
Mariachi Arcoiris de Los Angeles — which will perform on Saturday, June 17 during a Pride Month celebration at the Van Nuys Civic Center — is making it’s mark to dramatically change what was previously a “one kind of male only” image.
“It takes guts to wear the Charro outfit with a rainbow bowtie,” one observer noted.
The group is the brainchild of Samaniego, a 36-year-old gay man who grew up playing mariachi music.
He first founded the group in 2000, but at that time it only lasted nine months. The time was still not right for a mariachi group like this one.
“Being gay in mariachi is very taboo,” Samaniego said “Being an openly gay man in mariachi, it rubbed other musicians the wrong way. They would treat me differently, think less of me in the professional mariachi world. I felt excluded.
“I would have friends in these groups who would let me know about auditions. I’d go, and a couple of weeks later I would come to find out that they hired someone who was less proficient than me,” he said.
But Samaniego didn’t give up.
“I wanted mariachi musicians who identify as LGBTQ to have a safe place to perform mariachi music.”
Resuming The Group
In 2014, Samaniego re-formed Mariachi Arcoiris. Three years later, he said, it has evolved into so much more than just an LGBTQ mariachi group.
“The group now serves as representative of mariachi to the LGBTQ community, and the LGBTQ community in the mariachi world,” Samaniego said. “It holds up as an example of people who carry out a job that is typically machista, but we are being true and authentic to ourselves.”
He credits the group’s success to the fact that it’s based in Los Angeles — not only a great place for mariachi music, but a city with a large, strong and diverse LGBTQ community.
“I don’t think it may have happened in other parts of the country,” he said, thus its name “Mariachi Arcoiris de Los Ángeles.”
Samaniego, who recently celebrated his sixth wedding anniversary with his husband, said the group has become a beacon of hope to others as its fame grows.
“I know of a lot of people that decided to come out to their families because of us,” he said, adding he gets complements from people in Spain, Mexico, Columbia and other countries.
As a group, however, Mariachi Arcoiris de Los Ángeles remains unique. “I would hope that there were other mariachi groups like us,” said Samaniego, who wouldn’t mind the competition. “I hope we’re not the only ones forever.”
While Samaniego admits it can still be hard to get jobs — “Not everyone who wants to hire a mariachi wants to hire a LGBTQ mariachi. They’re kind of skeptical” — it’s getting better.
They have a regular gig at Club Tempo, a gay Latino cowboy nightclub in West Hollywood, where they perform every Sunday night. From there they get hired to do weddings and other events in the LGBTQ community.
The group consists of nine members. Two of them are straight (“Everyone is welcome to play in our group,” Samaniego said). And there is Natalia Melendez, the first transgender woman in the history of mariachi.
Another Struggle For Acceptance
Melendez, a violinist since age 8, has become a singular story herself.
The 37-year-old began her transition from male to female more than nine years ago. The gender change made it even harder to get jobs in the mariachi world.
“I wasn’t able to perform in groups that I wanted to play,” she said of her formative years. “Having my eyebrows tweezed and being very feminine, I always felt like a girl trapped in a boy’s body.”
It meant few callbacks from auditions. Some mariachi groups would allow her to work with them occasionally, but they wouldn’t hire her.
“Once I transitioned, the calls stopped coming,” she said. Meanwhile, “I was living my life to the fullest during the transition.”
When Samaniego (who Melendez has known for a long time and considers him her brother) called and told her about Mariachi Arcoiris, Melendez didn’t hesitate to join. She initially thought it wouldn’t last because in the beginning they would only get a couple of gigs here and there.
“It was rough,” she said.
But now the tables have turned — for Melendez and the group.
“I’ve had much more success as a transgender woman than as a gay boy,” she said.
Melendez has come to understand the responsibility for being the “first” in this realm. “We stand for something,” she said. “Now that I have this grand stage that I’ve been given, I try to encourage the rest of the community by showing them that it is possible for a transgender musician to be successful.”
She said the reception from the LGBTQ community is very humbling.
“I’m a blessed woman,” she said.
This past weekend the group performed at the West Hollywood Pride Festival with singer Graciela Beltran. They will do other Pride events throughout the state.
Samaniego, Melendez and Vásquez all believe they have a responsibility to represent their community.
“With the conservative federal government that we currently have, I feel the responsibility to resist and make our voices heard — literally, singing live — to make sure our rights don’t get taken away from us,” Samaniego said.
“We are a double minority. We’re not only Latinos, but LGBTQ Latinos. We need to make sure that the equality that exists does not fade away, but becomes stronger.”
“Our group stands for a new light in music history in the mariachi world,” she said. “It must be done and we’re doing it.”
“I feel that there’s those in the LGBT community who are looking up to us, not only representing the LGBT community, but those in the Latino(a) queer community as well,” Vásquez said.
“We’re setting an example for other mariachi musicians that — whether they’re out or not — shows that being LGBTQ doesn’t mean that you should hide who you are, and that you should be authentic as much as possible. We have a lot of things that we may face, but we’re unapologetic about who we are. If we don’t take a stand about it, nobody else will.”
The Pride celebration this coming Saturday June 17th starts at 5 p.m. at the Van Nuys Civic Center, located at 14410 Sylvan St. in Van Nuys. There will be food trucks, music and a resource fair.
Diana Martinez, Editor, contributed to this story.