Facing the stone archway of St. Joseph’s Salesian Youth Retreat Center outside Los Angeles, the dark wooden coffin holding the body of Juan Jiménez was wheeled next to a band of masked mariachis. The group readied themselves to play, simultaneously lifting bows to violins, hands to a golden harp and fingers to pluck at guitarróns, their bass guitars.
When the priest’s prayer ended, Jesus Guzmán led the band, Mariachi Los Camperos, through almost an hour of music: songs that express grief and goodbyes, like “Las Golondrinas” (“The Swallows”).
The calendars of mariachi bands nationwide used to be full of dates for weddings, quinceañeras and serenades where the vigorous music of Mexican culture helped enliven some of life’s most joyous moments. With the onset of the pandemic, those opportunities disappeared, leaving behind only the funerals, the mounting number of funerals, that have kept some mariachis from financial ruin.
At this funeral, in February, the playing was particularly passionate and the musicians, sombreros off, bowed their heads as the body passed. Jiménez was one of their own, a revered guitarrón player who had succumbed at 58 to the coronavirus.
“His friends were all there with him, playing for him, thanking him, continuing his legacy,” said Guzmán, a friend of Jiménez since childhood and the music director of the mariachi band they both called their own.
To witness the number of sad events that have kept some mariachi bands financially alive is to confront the virus’ harrowing toll on the people who once sang to their music. Latino and Black residents caught in this winter’s fierce coronavirus surge through Los Angeles County died at two or three times the rate of the white population there.
The story is similar in other locations with large Latino populations, and studies show Latinos are more vulnerable to becoming ill and dying from the virus. Their communities and households tend to be more crowded and to rely on mass transit, their access to health care is limited and their jobs are likely to involve contact with the public.
So as the caskets go into the ground, many mariachi bands in California, Texas, Illinois and elsewhere have turned to playing songs of pain and sorrow to ease the passing. Even for the bands used to playing at funerals before the pandemic, the sweep of death has been overwhelming. Many have lost family and friends, band members and music teachers.
For decades, family-run mariachi bands and self-employed musicians in Los Angeles have descended on Mariachi Plaza east of Downtown to vie for new bookings. This is where Christian Chavez, the secretary for the Organization of Independent Mariachis of California, has handed out boxes of food to struggling musicians since the pandemic first upended business.
Like many musicians he met on the plaza, Chavez was not immune to the pandemic’s financial hardships. The band his grandfather first founded in Mexico, Mariachi Tierra Mexicana, struggled. The pandemic wiped out his savings in seven months. The coronavirus forced Chavez and other mariachis to make grueling decisions just to make ends meet. That led many to continue working at events where people were nonchalant about masks and social distancing.
But, for many, funerals and burials became the mainstay, easing the financial pain but exacting another kind of harm, even for those used to playing such ceremonies intermittently between other events. The weeping. The people grasping for coffins as they were lowered. Chavez said that, at times, these moments were so devastating he had to turn away and just focus on his trumpet.
Of the 400 active members of the California mariachi organization, about 80 died of the virus, possibly having picked it up performing at events like parties and at restaurants, Chavez said. That tally includes his godfather, Dagoberto Martinez, who played the vihuela in his family band for 15 years.
“Every time I go to work, I pray that I’m one of the lucky ones to return home,” Chavez, who is working events and playing at dozens of funerals, said in a video interview. He and his family got dangerously sick with the virus in October, too.
All performing arts workers have struggled during the pandemic as unemployment had an undue influence on that sector. What is unique about the mariachi band members, many of them said in interviews, is how much their music became part of the ritual of passing for a population particularly affected by the pandemic.
In Pilsen, a neighborhood of Chicago with a sizable Latino community, Enrique and Karen Leon’s circle of mariachis has waned in the past year, in part because of deaths attributed to the coronavirus.
“Every mariachi represents a musical instrument, an instrument you hear in a group,” Karen Leon, the manager of the band Mariachi Mexico Vivo, said, describing what the loss of musicians means to the close community of mariachis. “Lots of people think, well, there are plenty of mariachis in Chicago, but it’s really difficult to replace someone when they have their talent. You can’t just replace someone’s life for another.”
In the past four months, Enrique Leon and six members of the band played at 15 funerals, half of those for coronavirus-related deaths. Though the funerals are essential, and help pay the bills, they do not match the emotional boost of performing at an event where one can see the music lift people’s spirit like a buoy.
“I want to play my guitar, compose songs, be in public singing,” Enrique Leon said. “That ambience fills me up. I’m working, and making money, but it’s not the same. It’s not the same without seeing smiles and laughter, the emotion from the crowd when they see the mariachi.”
In Texas, back in November, Miguel Guzman of Mariachi Los Galleros de San Antonio had to put his violin and music aside when he tested positive for the coronavirus. Just days before, he was masked and inside the home of a friend who was a reliable instrument dealer, buying a violin for a student. The friend later died of the virus.
Guzman fell very ill, too, and spent a month in the hospital. The virus winded him. He needed a constant stream of oxygen to breathe with his damaged lungs; he dropped 40 pounds and lost all his muscle; he needed physical therapy just to walk again.
At home, his fingers were numb when he repeatedly tried picking up his violin, but it was the promise of playing in the band with his sons again and writing a composition for his wife that kept him motivated to recover.
This past month, Guzman finally returned to the band and played at another round of funerals and burials. His first day back was at the funeral of a friend’s father-in-law. The week after, it was a funeral for one of his longtime clients, a tire-shop owner who had died of coronavirus-related complications.
Close to the coffin at that funeral, he stood with the band playing “Te Vas Ángel Mío” or “You’re Leaving, Angel of Mine.” He could hear the crying, yes, but he also could hear his violin, carrying life forward for those who grieved, and for him.
“Music is the medicine, because when I’m playing, I forget about not being able to breathe,” Guzman said.