As a mariachi in Boyle Heights, Luis Valdivia plays a bit of everything: trumpet, violin, a ukulele-sized guitar called the vihuela and a very large, six-string acoustic bass called the guitarrón. Valdivia’s younger brother Enrique Valdivia is also a mariachi. Their father and grandfather were mariachis as well. Each keeps three white mariachi suits and three black. They don’t have regular day jobs.
For 21 years, the Valdivia brothers have shared a two-bedroom apartment in a building located a block south of Mariachi Plaza, the gathering point for musicians, which the elder Valdivia brother calls “headquarters.” A total of 10 mariachis live in the building.
On Jan. 19, Luis Valdivia received a letter from Crescent Canyon Management, a real estate firm in Culver City. “After reviewing the income and expenses for the property,” the letter states, “we find it necessary to increase your rental rate.” The new owner of the building was raising the monthly rent to $1,825 from $1,020, an increase of nearly 80 percent.
One of the Valdivias' neighbors, Pedro Zúñiga, is a 62-year-old mariachi who lives in a modest one-bedroom with his wife and 13-year-old daughter. On Tuesday afternoon, Zúñiga had the door to his apartment propped open and was seated alone in the front room playing a silver trumpet. He kept a lit cigarette in the ashtray beside a stack of music sheets.
Dressed in a black mariachi suit and vest with a scarlet and burgundy bow, he was waiting for a student to arrive for a guitar lesson. His mouthbrow moustache is the same style as that of his hero, Mexican bolero singer Javier Solís.
Like other mariachis who are his neighbors in the building, Zúñiga was soliciting gigs at Mariachi Plaza before it was called Mariachi Plaza.
Zúñiga plays music Friday to Sunday for a rate of $350 for two hours, which he splits with four or five other musicians. Living a block from Mariachi Plaza is “extremely important” to his livelihood. “It’s where the customers know they can find mariachis. It’s where one mariachi comes to hire another mariachi to join him on a job. You won’t get that work if you live far away.”
In January, Zúñiga got a letter from Crescent Management informing him of a 60 percent rent increase, to $1,495 from $945.
“This is not an increase," he says. "It’s an outrage.”
Apartment complexes built before 1978 are protected by L.A.'s rent-control ordinance, but the building where the mariachis live is not covered since it was built in 1985, according to Elizabeth Blaney, co-director of the L.A. Tenants Union. She says rent increases of between 60 and 80 percent have affected tenants in seven of the 25 units in the apartment building.
Boyle Heights is undergoing a real estate boom, and Blaney says the opportunity to cash in has led to exorbitant rent increases, eviction letters and even threats to report tenants to federal immigration authorities.
For years, property values in Boyle Heights have trended upward, aided by the area’s desirable location across the river from downtown's Arts District. There also have been investments from the city: the Gold Line Eastside Extension, which opened the Mariachi Metro Station in 2009, and the future Sixth Street Viaduct, which will connect the neighborhood to downtown.
According to a history blog about the neighborhood, mariachis have gathered at the neighborhood's square in their elegant suits since the 1930s, “ready to be hired to play in restaurants, private parties or community events.”
“The next challenge is less well defined but equally significant: preserving the intangible heritage of the mariachi culture by finding ways to allow the mariachis to continue to live and earn a living as professional musicians in a neighborhood on the brink of gentrification.”
The Los Angeles Tenants Union held a protest at Mariachi Plaza on Tuesday afternoon, putting the landlord on notice. Luis Valdivia spoke at the rally. He dressed for the occasion in a cream-colored mariachi suit and matching boots with a silky white bow and and a brooch of gilded mini horseshoes.
The night before, Valdivia was out until 4:30 a.m., and it had not been a festive occasion. He and a group of sidemen serenaded a Mexican family at the casket of their 21-year-old daughter. Preparing for the rally, he puts on dark, gold-rimmed aviator shades that match the horseshoes.
“Everything we’re doing is to get to talk to the owner and negotiate a rent increase that is reasonable,” he says. “All of us are prepared to struggle to the end.”
Several of the tenants affected by the increase have met with Crescent Canyon Management. But they say the company's owner, Frank "BJ" Turner, who purchased the building late last year, has refused to meet with them. Turner declined to comment for this story.
Jon Snow, a real estate manager with Crescent Canyon, also declined to comment. He provided L.A. Weekly a written statement that says, in part: “In the past four months, ownership has invested in significant improvements, including all new HVAC units, new fencing and gates, new on-site laundry facilities, improved trash collection, roof repairs, new exterior paint and landscaping and improved exterior lighting throughout. All the residents have benefited from these improvements.”
The tenants tell a different story, saying the management company has added mostly cosmetic changes — a gravel garden with succulents inside the entrance, accent lighting, gilded apartment numbers — and that the improvements to the units are inadequate to justify the rent increase.
Zúñiga pointed down at his front door, the lower third of which appears to have been devoured by termites. “It’s looked like that since the day we moved in,” he says.
He led the way to the bedroom and pointed to the air vent, a rusted, ancient-looking metal grate in the ceiling. The new owners did install new AC units in the building, he says, but the ventilation system is old and filthy. “I don’t think the real owners of this building know what their employees are spending all their money on,” he says.
Other, non-mariachi neighbors had similar complaints about maintenance.
Truck driver Francisco González lives on the floor below Zúñiga. González showed me a large patch of what appeared to be black mold on the ceiling above the shower. The rent on the one-bedroom González shares with his wife and teenage son went up in January to $1,495 from $907, an increase of 65 percent.
Blaney says that the tenants whose rents were raised have refused to pay the increased amount. Twice they have sent the landlord checks for the previous amount, and both times the landlord mailed the checks back. “We’re looking at all the options right now.”
Boyle Heights is about 75 percent renters, and about 88 percent are protected by rent control, according to data provided by the office of Councilmember José Huizar, who represents District 14, including Boyle Heights. “This particular unit isn’t rent-stabilized, they don’t have those built-in protections,” says Rick Coca, communications director for Huizar. But the councilmember agrees with the L.A. Tenants Union "that just because you can doesn’t mean you should.”
Coca called the rent hikes in this case — on two months’ notice — “completely unreasonable.” He said staff from Huizar’s office spoke last week with Turner, the building’s owner, requesting a meeting to discuss the situation. “He said he would get back to us,” Coca says.
A crowd of about 50 people attended the rally on Tuesday afternoon. Participants carried homemade signs with slogans like “Frank ‘BJ’ Turner: Negotiate” and “People Before Profit.”
“The owner wants to wash his hands of us now that he changed out the stove and put in a new AC,” says Luis Valdivia. “The only option we have is to struggle to keep what we have and try to negotiate.”
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Valdivia says the tenants would consider a rent strike if Turner won’t budge.
Zúñiga says: “I’ll find somewhere else to live when an order is issued against me by an impartial authority, telling me that what is happening is fair. And not before then.”