Carlos Samaniego didn’t really know he was queer until college. But he remembers yearning to be a mariachi crooner as early as grade school. Luckily for him, LAUSD supports a mariachi band program as part of the music department at El Sereno Middle School.
“I started on the guitarrón,” recalls the founder and director of Mariachi Arcoiris de Los Angeles, the city’s first ever gay and transgender mariachi outfit. In a musical world historically associated with tough, hard-drinking, charismatic skirt-chasers, his recently formed sextet is comprised of straight allies, openly gay men and one transgender woman. It flies in the face of everything that's expected from one of the oldest and most revered Mexican musical traditions.
In his middle school mariachi, he was — oddly enough — assigned the most masculine instrument in the mariachi repertoire, an over-sized, almost pot-bellied, stringed and fretted bass guitar that holds down the lower register. It is the instrument that keeps the beat for bright staccato or occasionally lamenting violin wails and the accompanying sounds of sharp, bright, trumpet work.
“I had always wanted to be a singer, but the teacher told me I had to play an instrument to be part of the school mariachi. When he said he’d start me out on the guitarrón. I said ‘Sure! ’But what’s a guitarrón?’” That was 20 years ago. At El Sereno’s Wilson High School, he became captivated by the violin and spent two years there before an audition that garnered him acceptance into the prestigious Los Angeles County High School for the Arts.
“I studied music theory and classical violin. That’s when I got a lot more serious about playing,” he explains. Even before graduation, he was already a veteran of popular touring mariachis such as Mariachi Voz de America and Mariachi Garibaldi, the latter named for a famous Mexico City plaza where musicians have strolled and entertained for over a century.
After enrolling in the music program at Cal State L.A., Samaniego came out. He had been, until then, repressed. “But in the end I finally accepted myself for who I was,” he says.
Mariachi Arcoiris, Spanish for “Mariachi Rainbow,” has only been together for nine months in its current incarnation. But during Samaniego's years at Cal State, filled with the fervor of self-discovery, he joined a campus gay and lesbian organization, and in 2008, while putting together an event for the group, he took it upon himself to run with a suggestion that the event feature a gay mariachi.
“I had to figure out if I knew enough people,” he laughs. The fledgling group took on a regular gig at Club Tempo, a Hollywood bar that caters to the queer Latino cowboys. A feud with the manager ended the group’s early short run. “I was also still in school and needed to focus, so we just stopped.”
While the newly re-tooled band has played huge pride events and been featured on national TV, Samaniego confesses that he is most touched when same-sex couples invite them to play at their weddings. The media coverage comes, he says, because of bandmate Natalia Melendez, the country’s first professional transgender mariachi, who Samaniego met while both were teenagers playing in the same mariachi. “He was Julio, or just J. Even then, he talked about wanting to be a woman.”
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Mariachi Arcoiris, according to Samaniego, is simply a group of serious musicians who enjoy making music for everyone. The only discrimination, he says, has come from more traditional mariachi musicians, who have offered snide remarks anonymously through the grapevine. On a recent Sunday, they played the 24th Annual Mariachi Festival at Mariachi Plaza in Boyle Heights to rousing applause. Samaniego ribbed a bald audience member in tattoos by dedicating a song “for all those still in the closet.” The song lyrics, in translation, say, “You resemble me more than you care to admit.” The audience, a diverse crowd of all sizes, shapes and ethnicities, even asked for an encore.
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