Downtown Tijuana is a constant cacophony. Taxis, calafias (tricked-out short buses), and other vehicles never stop honking. Sirens from police cars, fire trucks, car alarms, and ambulances seem to always distract one’s attention. And with no regulation, random cars blast their own noise advertising garbage pickup, company jingles, freshly baked bread, homemade tamales, and commercials for lucha libre events.
Walk around one of the busy blocks and you hear people yelling to offer tacos, newspapers, pirated DVDs, trinkets, fruits, vegetables, and even drugs. Bus and taxi managers shout the destinations and offer rides. Street evangelists quote the Bible through a megaphone while calling everyone sinners.
Bars blast music at deafening levels. So do businesses that have no reason to play music — farmacias, cell-phone providers, pawn shops, and clothing stores. There is construction or remodeling every few steps. Even the electricity cables that hang overhead buzz and crackle.
In the midst of all this chaos, a bearded young man wearing glasses and a tan military uniform with matching beret turns a crank of a wooden street organ. He smiles at passersby and extends a hat he uses to collect tips. A Curious George stuffed animal sits on top of his instrument.
“I never had a chance to use a real monkey,” comments Victor Maya, the organillero (organ grinder). “I know old timers that did use the little monkey, but it was rarely used.”
As Victor turns the crank, high-pitched whistles play an out-of-tune chirpy melody. The bass whistles are muffled, simple, and repetitive.
“My family has been playing the organillo for quite some time now,” continues Victor. “My brother plays the organillo, my cousin plays the instrument as well. My dad doesn’t anymore, but he also worked as an organ grinder. It has been more than half my life. I started working when I was 14 years old and now I’m 31. I travel regularly with a work partner and share the instrument. We arrived in Tijuana a year and a half ago.”
Victor is from Mexico City, where organilleros are a common sight. Organ grinders are usually retired old men, who do it as a hobby, and folks who are out of work. Victor is an exception. In Tijuana, I have only seen him and his coworker. This time, Victor is playing his instrument in the early afternoon outside Tijuana’s History Museum at the corner of Calle Segunda and Constitución. La Maguana, Tijuana’s most famous homeless woman, is usually across the street where she bathes with buckets of water outside the supermarket. She was not around that day.
“We have an association that works at a national level. The last registry that I remember had 260 to 300 organ grinders. Almost all of them in Mexico City. Around 90 percent of the instruments are found there. It’s tradition over there.”
Organ grinders started in Europe in the late 19th Century and then spread to the Americas. Some places, such as New York City, Paris, and London, considered them a nuisance and passed laws against them. They were so common in New York City that in 1880, 1 out of 20 Italian immigrants worked with the instrument. Organ grinders were banned from the city in 1936 by mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, who reputedly resented the Italian-immigrant stereotype. The law was repealed in 1975, but organ grinders were obsolete by then.
In the United Kingdom, George Orwell had a particular disdain toward the organ grinders and wrote: in 1929, “We must note in passing that organ grinders should not be confused with genuine artists trying their best to amuse and entertain their fellows. They are simply beggars in every sense of the word. Their dreadful music is the result of a purely mechanical gesture, and is only intended to keep them on the right side of the law.” Begging was illegal, but entertainment was not. “If they did not insist on passing round the hat (which is their begging bowl), no one would give them anything.”
Places such as the Netherlands, Berlin, Vienna, Slovenia, Chile, and Mexico City, adopted them as tradition, each with their own quirks.
Victor tells me about his outfit. “Legend tells the story that in the revolutionary times of Pancho Villa, an organillero was with his army, and the music was used to soothe the men after a battle. In 1970, when the national association of organilleros was created, it was ruled, based on that legend, that our uniform was to be like Los Dorados de Villa [Pancho Villa’s ‘golden men’].”
How has it been for you in Tijuana?
“Here in downtown, Mexican folk will see me, listen for a little bit, and then give me a small tip. In other more touristy areas, foreigners stop and look at me, they walk around, and if they happen to go past me a second or even third time, then they will give me a coin or more.”
As he cranks, Victor explains how it works. “It’s a wooden cylinder with metal incrustations that when I turn the lever plays a keyboard. The bottom part has a bellow that sends the wind towards the whistles on top and to the bass whistles which are on the bottom. This particular organillo comes from Chile. The roll contains eight melodies: for example, this one has ‘Juan Charrasqueado,’ ‘Camino Barrera,’ ‘Caminos de Guanajuato,’ and other oldies like ‘Sera Sera,’ ‘La Paloma,’ and ‘La Vida en Rosa (La Vi en Rose).’ I can select a song, but I have to play it whole; otherwise, I can damage the mechanism inside, which is like a clock. ”
The voice of a man yelling that he is selling chocolates for one peso is heard over the music.
“Years back, we were touring from town to town in central Mexico. We decided to tour the Pacific coast. We played here at the border, then went to Tecate, Mexicali, San Luis Colorado, Ensenada, and came back to Tijuana. We decided to stay here because of the climate. It practically hasn’t rained since we got here. Other organilleros in Mexico City told us they can barely work because they are basically underwater. And here we are. It’s really hot out, but at least we can work and that is what is important.
“Tijuana and the people at the border have treated us really nice. Authorities have also been supportive about preserving this type of work. In fact, the Municipal Institute of Art and Culture has their own organillo with two extra rolls. We are waiting for proper restoration and we will be working on a project with them.”
Like many other street characters, Victor and his coworker go where there is a crowd: the downtown area, the business district, the border, concerts, or sporting events.
“I have seen them on occasion in the afternoons,” says Luis Montijo, the cultural manager of Pasaje Rodríguez, Tijuana’s art alley. “I noticed that the tradition [of the organillero] doesn’t mean much for tijuanenses, compared to people from Mexico City where they are considered cultural and historical heritage. Though I personally do like them, they seem to be out of place.”
“Separated at birth!” The craft brewer for Ley Seca, Juan Bojorquez, posted a picture on Facebook of him and the organillero in Tijuana’s baseball stadium. Wearing a Toros shirt, Juan holds a beer with his left hand while his right arm is around his doppelgänger, Victor’s coworker Gabriel Rivera. Both have unevenly trimmed black chinstrap beards, tight-lipped smiles, chubby cheeks, and dark skin and eyes.
A few weeks after talking to Victor, I saw his co-worker grinding away outside a currency-exchange store at the corner of Third Street and Niños Heroes Avenue in downtown Tijuana.
“That’s Timothy,” says Gabriel. Instead of using a stuffed Curious George, Gabriel opted for Timothy Q. Mouse, from Dumbo. “The border is a different Mexico; it is not Mexico and it is not the United States. People here only saw organ grinders in movies with the likes of Pedro Infante and Tin Tan. In those old movies, they saw the organ grinder with the monkey.
“I’ve been working with Victor and as an organ grinder for two and a half years. Before working the street, I was an industrial engineer. It was a process of finding my identity that I opted for being part of the urban scene, to retake the street as my work. In Mexico City, we worked in neighborhoods that are more violent than Tijuana. I’m not sure how long we are staying here, but we are already accustomed to the Tijuana lifestyle.”
Gabriel, 38 years old, is seven years older than his partner Victor, though much less experienced. They share an apartment in Colonia Castillo, which sits just south of the border and west of the gritty Zona Norte neighborhood a mile or so from the San Ysidro crossing. Neither are married or have children.
“That’s the reason we can be outside of Mexico City and travel, Gabriel says. “An organ grinder with a family can’t be traveling. We participated and met other organ grinders from around the world through a festival that happens every three years in Waldkirch [a town in southwest Germany] and a festival that happens outside the Berlin Zoo every year.”
How much did the organillo cost? And how much money do you make in a day?
“It was inherited through [Victor’s] family. The monetary value is nil; there is no amount. What I make in a day depends, and I’d rather not tell you.”
There aren’t many organillos for sale on eBay or Mercado Libre (Latin America’s online market). Most of what you find are decorative small organs, books, magazines, vinyl, or CDs related to the street organ but not the actual instrument. The European website melright.com has crank organs priced between $1000 and $3500. The website for Organillos Lizana, the brand of instrument that Victor and Gabriel share, has no organillos for sale.
“Hearing the same songs does not bother me,” Gabriel explains. “When someone enjoys the activity they are doing, there are things that become secondary.”