Tijuana's mariachis - romantic troubadors at Plaza Santa Cecelia

Songs for the uprooted .

As cars turn in from Revolucion, mariachis hand out their cards, trying to get them through the drivers’ windows.
  • As cars turn in from Revolucion, mariachis hand out their cards, trying to get them through the drivers’ windows.
  • Image by Sandy Huffaker, Jr.

Jessie has a smile that doesn’t agree with his fierce black eyes.

Take care,” says Oscar. “This area is dangerous.” He leans over the bar, brings his face close to mine. “The police have no control. It wasn’t like this before. Only now.” Oscar turns to Jessie: “And don’t do anything bad, okay? This is my friend. He has been coming here for six years. You harm him, you harm me, okay?”

“Okay, Oscar, esta bien, ” says Jessie, wiping his mustache. “We’re just going to have a game of pool.” Jessie has a smile that doesn’t agree with his fierce black eyes. Still, I kind of like him. Oscar slides the caguamas (“sea turtles" — large, bosomy bottles) along the bar to us. Jessie takes his and pours a stream of Tecate beer onto the floor, in the shape of a cross. “For the dead people,” he says. He looks at me. I do the same with mine.

“For the dead,” I say. He takes a long guzzle. So do I. I haven’t figured out Jessie yet. I know he’s on the make, thinking I may be a good pollo to pluck, but I hang out with him because I have time to kill. I’m waiting for the musicians.

This is the musicians’ bar, Tijuana, near the Zona Norte (or, “Zona Naughty,” as some gringo scrawled on a urinal wall in the nearby Copa Cabana Cantina). It’s grungy. Cases of Tecate are stacked up against the wall behind the bar. There are about ten pool tables, straw-hatted players bent over them. Behind them, instruments. Double basses, guitars, vihuelas (small guitars), button accordions, piano accordions, trumpets, and violins lean against the wall. The floor’s for spitting on, stubbing your cigarros on — not for dropping your hat on. There’s a slight smell of urine wafting back from the men’s toilet. There’s none of the noise of the street outside; only the click of pool balls, the clink of caguamas, and Spanish conversation.

I know Jessie’s trying to fly one when he brings Pedro to the pool table. I know this will involve money. “This is a musician,” he says. “You can talk to him.” I have already talked to Pedro. He’s not a musician. He can twiddle out a few ranchero songs, but he’s not a professional like most of the people who come in here.

“Hey, my friend,” says the guy next to me at the bar. “What are you looking for?”

“I’m waiting for the mariachis to come in,” I say.

“You want to buy me a beer? And maybe a dollar for some tacos? I can find mariachis.” His name is Jorge. He has liquidy blue eyes. I give him a couple bucks. Last time 1 was here a guy offered to show me the entire Tijuana underworld if I gave him $30, up front.

It’s about six in the evening. People are tired but not yet drunk. The place has a name, something like Billardes Tenampa, although I’ve never noticed a sign. Everybody seems to call it the musicians’ bar, because this is where they all come: mariachis, norteno trios, lone guitarists, filarmonicos, retreating from the world to lay down their instruments. They drink a couple beers if they have money (sit and talk if they don’t), play pool, swear about the meanness of today’s turistas. They practice a few harmonies with one another, then go back into the streets around Avenida Revolucion to sell their songs. Tourist price: dollar per song for solo players; dollar per musician for the larger groups. Local prices: a secret, possibly what the listener can afford.

I’m watching a massacre. Jessie has handed his cue over to Pedro, and Pedro is sinking balls one by one when Jorge comes back with four mariachis. They all wear traditional Jalisco charro outfits, studded down the legs with plata — silver buttons. Two guitarristas, a bajo sexto player (a lightweight bass that looks more like a pregnant-mother guitar), and a violinist. When I explain I just want to talk, their interest drains. This could lose them business. They go back out to the plaza.

Whapapp!Through the swinging doors come two young musicians who seem harassed, footsore. They cut through the gate leading behind thebar, put their instruments onto shelves under the counter, and come back to sit on stools.

“We play day and night,” says Heraclio Marcilla. He’s the bajo sexto player. “Day and night,” says Martin Garcia, the guitarist. They both seem around 30 years old. “We play around the touristic areas. Revolution,” says Marcilla. “Nine times out of ten it’s American sailors and they say ‘La Bamba.’ Or ‘Cielito Lindo’ (“Pretty Sky” — “Aye-yi-yi-yi!”), or ‘Rancho Grande.’ People, they can be generous. We like to play at fiestas familiares. That’s good money. But,” he sighs, “it’s difficult.”

“It’s the devaluation, the crisis,” says Garcia. “The peso. That made life very tough. Overnight, people didn’t have any money anymore. Things cost twice as much.”

“Most players who come here,” says Oscar from the other side of the bar, “they go three times around the bars. In between they come in here to take the weight off their feet. After three times, if they make no money, they go home.” Why do they keep doing it?

“It is what I know,” says Marcilla. “I know maybe 200 songs. Up here.” He points to his head. “I’ll stay doing this.” I ask Oscar how long he has been working here.

“I am a dry man, I must drink some beer,” says Oscar. I take the hint and order two more caguamas. They cost about 80 cents each.

“Fifteen years,” says Oscar, after a long first sip. “I’ve been working here 15 years, ever since I came up from Guadalajara.”

A guy from El Salvador with a scar across his right jaw tries to interest me in a sapphire ring. It comes down rapidly from $10 to $5, but I’m getting short of money now. As he presses me, I notice an elderly man coming through the doors. He has a guitar, but he’s wearing a jacket and shirt and tie. He goes down to the far end of the bar. The old man sits on a stool and calls out, “Agua!

“That’s the guitar teacher,” says Oscar. “Known him ten years. That man knows 500 songs by heart."

Agua!'”calls the man again. Gregorio Luna is 67 years old and part of a romantico trio that plays every night, 10 p.m.-6 a.m. for people celebrating cumpleanos (birthday parties) or quinceaneras (15th birthday/coming-out parties). Mexican customers, mostly. He’s waiting for his two partners to turn up. “Yes, I play ‘Cielito Lindo,’ but we play a lot of the old songs from the (different] regions of Mexico. I can’t teach anymore. I don’t have the energy for both — Agua!"

Oscar’s taking his time. Sometimes, Luna says, he’ll be called to go to a party at three in the morning. He’ll sing till dawn. “People get sentimental for the songs of their childhood, some of the most difficult ones [to play], like ‘De Lydia’ and 'La Gloria Es Tu.’ It is a Mexican thing. They might start the party with recorded music — rock and roll — but after a while they want to sing songs they know, songs from their home state, from their childhood. Tijuana people are often uprooted, so I think we are important to them. We keep that real part of Mexico alive for them.”

We talk on. For him, the night is young. His day has just begun. I realize that this man is no mere street singer. Those 500 songs in his head span the recent history and heartbreak of Mexico. In a way, the Lunas are where the country’s soul is stored for safekeeping: “La Cucaracha,” the revolutionary song about the peasants — hard to conquer because they were everywhere, like cockroaches; “Adelita,” also a great song about the Zapata revolution of 1910-19. There are also the un der-the-balcony love songs like “Historia de Amor,” “Eres Tu,” “Amapola,” “Marta,” and “la Gloria Es Tu,” which seduced millions in the ’40s. Even the much-abused “La Bamba” is about the seduction of a woman (who doesn’t trust sailors) by a sailor.

We finally attract Oscar’s attention from the other end of the bar. He brings a couple caguamas with him. “This is a fine man,” says Oscar. “He knows too much.” I offer Luna a beer, but he refuses. He asks for a sangria instead. He gulps some down, looks at his watch, and says, “I must go. My compadres will be arriving.”

I follow Luna out through the sidewalk crowd, into the dark (it’s around 8:00 p.m.) of Calle Primero. He stops in the street opposite the plazita and leans against an old Volvo. On the other side of the street, mariachis are assembling. (The word mariachi is from the days of Maximilian’s rule last century, when French families asked groups of Mexican musicians to come and play at their daughters’ marriages — weddings.) Some of the musicians are middle-aged, others barely teenagers. They horse around under the arches as music blares out of nearby cantinas. “There are about 20 groups altogether in Tijuana,” says Pedro Priseno, a violinist. “That’s a lot.”

Most have guitars, but there are plenty of trumpets being tooted and violins being tuned. Even a couple of drums. As cars turn in from Revolucion, mariachis hand out their cards, trying to get them through the drivers’ windows. Plaza Santa Cecilia, as most Tijuanans know, is where you come to engage a mariachi group, or a trio. These are the contracts the musicians want; much more lucrative than earning money one tune at a time in the bars. If they don’t get business here, that’s where they’ll go. Luna leans against the Volvo, strumming complex chords. He waits for his compadres. “This business is worth waiting for,” he says. “The choice is always between us and the mariachis. We get $100 an hour at the right place.”

Finally, his two partners arrive. Jesus Gongora, guitarrista, is neat, looks like a schoolteacher. Then Jorge Avalos, the vihuela player. Like the others, he has been playing 20 years. He and Jesus talk under the arches while Luna continues his vigil on the street. A guy squatting down beside the mariachis stands up every so often to throw a stone at a dog on our side of the road. “Yes, there are problems of violence sometimes,” says Luna. “But we always wait through. Till 6:00 a.m. 'La esperanza dura al ultima. ’ Hope lasts to the end.”

I leave him playing away at his favorite tune, “Sin Ti” (“Without You”) on his 12-year-old, well-worn Lyle guitar. I try to think of what it must be like, spending every night here, at 67, waiting for clients like this.

Somehow I find myself back in the musicians’ bar, sitting at the counter. It’s noisier now. A bunch of drunk musicians thump the bar, trying to get Oscar’s attention.

It strikes me that these guys are the last gasp of that great medieval tradition, the minstrels, the troubadours. King Arthur’s court with the straw on the floor and the curs slinking under the table and the minstrels singing love songs to Guinevere with a lute.

“What’s your favorite song?" I ask Jorge, the guy who first tried to help with the mariachis, who sits next to me sharing one last caguama. It turns out he’s from Guadalajara but goes up to Oregon for most of the year to pick strawberries and vegetables.

“My favorite song?” he says, “Garth Brooks. ‘Broken Heart.’ ”

Ten p.m. Back out in the plaza, mariachis still mill about. Luna is still out in the street, waiting for business. The night breeze blows through the trees. I’ve just come back from Avenida Revolucion.

“What about all this electronic music?” I ask Luna, referring to the throbbing bass sounds that spill into the streets from all the hip nightspots.

“It’s not a problem,” he says. “Because our music is romantic. And our music is from the soul. People like to sing along with us. Mexican people have corazon. Yes, some places it’s hard to play these days. But no, this I promise: We will never die.”

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