What social power does music have? Where does that power come from?
Mariachi musicians Carlos Samaniego and Natalia Melendez found out the hard way—first through discrimination, ridicule, and professional blackballing among their musician peers, then via the challenging path of advocating for the acceptance of gay, lesbian, and transgender people in the mariachi world.
Both Carlos and Natalia are Mexican Americans from the east side of Los Angeles, and both were immersed in mariachi music at a young age through family and community life. Carlos, bespectacled and clear-spoken, is a court translator by profession and the grandson of a mariachi. Natalia, every hair in place, expresses herself in a smooth, emphatic way. She was about nine years old when she experienced an epiphany, hearing female mariachi pioneer Laura Sobrino, now deceased, play at her grandmother’s ninety-eighth birthday celebration. From that moment on, Sobrino was her role model. Carlos and Natalia would study mariachi music in public school programs.
Also at an early age, both knew that their sexual and gender identities were not what society expected of them. Growing up, each charted a path to self-realization. But these paths were personal, not public; neither of them intended to become highly visible advocates for change. The hypermasculine traditions in the mariachi world could be oppressive. Their goal was to find a “safe space” in mariachi music to be themselves, both as Mexican Americans and as gay and transgender people. This led to the creation of Mariachi Arcoiris, named for the multicolored rainbow flag (arcoiris is “rainbow” in Spanish).
“Originally it wasn’t meant to be this socially important or groundbreaking group,” Carlos explains. “I was a music major, and I had just come out of the closet. And when you come out of the closet, you basically come, like, screaming out. And so I wanted to discover all of these things. I wanted to get to meet other people who were like myself.”
Carlos assembled a mariachi to play for a gay pride event at California State University, Los Angeles. The group was such a success that it attracted the attention of the owner of a Latino gay nightclub, who hired them to play weekly. With this, Mariachi Arcoiris was born. Its first incarnation would last less than a year, but the idea to continue never left him.
“I have gone through a lot of bad things with mariachis,” Carlos recalls. “I’ve had a lot of discrimination and prejudices against me, being in mariachi. And I haven’t been allowed to be in certain groups because of that, because I’ve been openly gay.”
He revived Mariachi Arcoiris in 2014. This time, though, driven by the indignities of homophobic prejudice, he wanted the group to be more upfront about its identity. He returned to the gay nightclub, whose owner immediately hired the group. He called Natalia, his childhood friend, formerly Jay Meléndez, a transgender woman who was working as a mariachi violinist and singer.
“I felt that Natalia needed to have a spotlight for being the groundbreaking person that she is,” Carlos says. “She’s the first transgender woman in the history of mariachi as a working musician. She has a more important role to play than just being one of the other musicians. So Mariachi Arcoiris can definitely provide that for her.”
Natalia’s career as a professional mariachi was hampered by overt discrimination. She felt she had been a “dart board” and a “big piñata” for criticism and ridicule.
Against this background, she was deeply grateful for the opportunity to be part of Mariachi Arcoiris. She gladly accepted Carlos’s invitation.
“I thought it would be an amazing thing to do for us, when he called me up,” Natalia remembers. “And me personally, I am just amazed by just me being myself and being out and open, and what it has done for people.”
“What she has gone through and continues to go through is not be taken lightly, nor is it to be pushed aside or be somewhere in the shadows,” Carlos adds. “No, it needs to be brought out and showcased, and attention must be given.”
The second time around, Carlos changed the name to Mariachi Arcoiris de Los Angeles, as a tribute to the city that he feels is key to the group’s existence.
“I think it’s because we live in the United States and we live in Los Angeles in such a diverse, such an open-minded community, that we’re able to even conceive of such a thing,” he says.
The name also reflects Carlos’s own sense of dual identity.
“We represent ourselves as the first LGBT mariachi because it is not only the way we identify in our personal lives, or public lives, but it’s a big part of who we are as people, just like a big part of me being Mexican,” Carlos says. “My parents are from Mexico. My family lives in Mexico. A lot of my customs and my culture and my traditions are Mexican. And that’s a part of me as well as being a gay man.”
Carlos and Natalia recognize that the group’s social power would be nothing if their music-making were not at a high level.
“One of the challenges, and, frankly, the most important thing for me above all else, is the music,” Carlos states. “Our mission and our goal is to be a good mariachi. If people are going to talk bad about us because of who we are, I can’t help that, but I don’t want them to talk bad about how we play. On the contrary, I want them to think really good things about how we play and say, ‘Wow, they sound really good!’”
And they do. Their dual mission of being a respected musical group and advocating for social equality for the LGBTQ community has won the hearts and minds of many. Univisión, Telemundo, TV Azteca América, and NPR have spotlighted them, as have print media such as the Los Angeles Times, La Opinión, LA Weekly, and SF Weekly. They have been featured in major gay pride events, as well as at the annual Santa Cecilia mariachi concert in Los Angeles’s Mariachi Plaza, where the audience of their musical peers demanded an encore.
They have stayed true to the music and their Mexican heritage, and they have broadened the image of the mariachi charro (“cowboy”)—so called because of the style of their uniforms—to keep it alive and inclusive for LGBTQ people. They have harnessed the social power of music through artistic excellence and by doubling down on their dual identities.
“Be yourself, and don’t be afraid to be yourself,” Carlos advises.
“¡Que viva la música de mariachi!” Natalia exclaims. “It’s a beautiful music, and it’s a beautiful culture. And mariachi is mariachi—gay, straight, bi, or whatever.”
The group spreads this message in their music as well, often closing its performances with a theme song: “A mi manera,” the Spanish version of “My Way.” As the song lyrics say, “I’ve lived a life that’s full. I’ve traveled each and every highway. But more, much more than this, I did it my way.”
Daniel Sheehy is director and curator emeritus of Smithsonian Folkways Recordings. He is also a co-founding musician in Mariachi Los Amigos, the longest existing mariachi ensemble in the Washington, D.C., area.
This project received federal support from the Latino Initiatives Pool, administered by the Smithsonian Latino Center.