First LGBTQ + mariachi group paves the way for the next generation

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Itzia Crespo

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Across the American Southwest, Mariachi musicians perform in colorful charro trajes – ornate equestrian outfits and boots. And in the LGBTQ enclave of West Hollywood, an emerging group has added rainbow bow ties to traditional mariachi attire.

Los Angeles’ Mariachi Arcoiris is called the world’s first 100% LGBTQ + mariachi and has the first transgender mariachi.

Carlos Samaniego, director and founder of the group (in Spanish, arcoiris means rainbow), said the archetype of the “old head” mariachi is imbued with toxic masculinity – which he hopes to refute.

“At first I felt like I had to prove something to someone,” Samaniego said. “That this group of gay individuals can really play the heck of mariachi music and truly represent our culture.”

The group is fulfilling a need for this representation, as evidenced by the flooded inboxes of the group’s social media accounts, which are filled with notes from young fans grateful for the positive effect Mariachi Arcoiris has had in their lives.

“They look up to us, which is wonderful because we, the older ones in the group, didn’t have that when we went out,” Samaniego said. “It’s beautiful that we can now be that to someone else.”

Samaniego smiled as he spoke of the younger generation of musicians in the group. The creation of Mariachi Arcoiris introduced them to the world of mariachi performance without encountering the often toxic paradigms of other groups, he said.

Ayan Vasquez-Lopez has navigated his identity through mariachi music for most of his young life. Musician and singer with Mariachi Arcoiris who uses the pronouns them and her, Vasquez-Lopez joined the group in 2018 but had become a fan long before. She is also responsible for the group’s social networks and videographer.

In high school, Vasquez-Lopez pursued a marching band but was transferred to mariachi because this group needed a violinist.

“Reluctantly, I joined,” Vasquez-Lopez said. “That’s when her culture started to creep in and that’s when I started to fall in love with her.”

The musician remembers having an identity crisis in high school because of her ethnicity and having experienced “that kind of self-loathing that you go through (in) childhood”.

For many people belonging to more than one marginalized community, the feelings described by Vasquez-Lopez are commonplace.

An October 2008 study on emotional distress in gay and lesbian youth by the Journal of Homosexuality described the socialization of gay youth as “learning to hide.”

Mental health care providers working with gay and lesbian youth often advise them to seek role models within the gay and lesbian community and organizations that serve LGBTQ + people to counter feelings of isolation and loneliness, according to the ‘study.

“It fits perfectly with my intersectional identity, being queer and Mexican,” Vasquez-Lopez said. “So it’s a place where I can show that to the world.”

Sex Roles: A Journal of Research defines intersectionality as the recognition of multiple identities defined in terms of relative socio-cultural power and privilege that shape a person’s identity and experiences.

The creation of this intersectional mariachi group took over a decade. It was conceived in 2000, when Samaniego was in college and hosting a Pride event for an LGBTQ + campus organization. The event included a sham marriage because, at the time, same-sex marriage was illegal.

“It was a very Latino campus,” Samaniego said, “so if we were to plan a wedding, of course there had to be a mariachi, so I was like, ‘Wouldn’t that be great if it was a fully gay mariachi? ‘ “

Samaniego was stunned when musicians from out of town performed at this unique concert, but the excitement confirmed the pain of a long isolated community finding a sense of belonging.

“The manager of a nightclub heard about this event, attended it and, when we finished the show, asked to speak to the manager and they all pointed at me,” Samaniego said.

Soon after, the mariachi band started performing at the nightclub twice a week, but broke up after a few months, Samaniego said, blaming his inexperience as a director.

Samaniego spent years in other bands, but knew he would one day recreate this haven for queer musicians to collaborate with their talents. In 2016, he contacted a member of the college group who had since revealed himself as a transgender woman. Natalia Melendez, who is now a violinist and singer with Mariachi Arcoiris, helped with her training and is considered the first transgender mariachi.

“Being the first trans woman in mariachi is beyond me,” she said. “I am very grateful, very blessed. With that comes a great responsibility that I feel and take to heart.

Melendez said she is sure there are more people like her to come and that she hopes to lay the foundation for the growth of this community.

Mariachi Arcoiris gained even more popularity at the end of August, when the group’s most popular TikTok on the platform garnered over 1.7 million views.

Comments on the video include people excited about the prospect of one day having an LGBTQ + mariachi during their same-sex marriage, now that they can see themselves portrayed in the faces of Mariachi Arcoiris.

“It’s like home,” Melendez said. “It feels like a family. “

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