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All-LGBTQ Mariachi Band Shatters Stereotypes

The music of Mariachi Arcoiris breaks barriers for performers and audiences

spinner image mariachi arcoiris edwin martinez leandro orozco saulo garcia carlos samaniego raul barillas lorena rodriguez and valentin tril jr at houghton park in california
Mariachi Arcoiris de Los Angeles members from left to right: Edwin Martinez, Leandro Orozco, Saulo Garcia, Carlos Samaniego, Raul Barillas, Lorena Rodriguez, and Valentin Tril Jr. Not pictured are Natalia Melendez and Brian Espinoza.
Cassidy Araiza

The band Mariachi Arcoiris de Los Angeles was founded in 2014 by Carlos Samaniego to combat discrimination and provide a “safe space” for himself and other LGBTQ mariachi musicians to perform. Samaniego, 41, is a classically trained singer and violinist, and his longtime friend Natalia Melendez, 42, is the band’s lead singer and the world’s first transgender woman mariachi.

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For Samaniego, the turning point that led him to create an all-LGBTQ mariachi ensemble came after years of being called out for his homosexuality while playing with other groups. “What does being gay have to do with the music?” he asks. For Melendez, it was a year of introspection and prayer that allowed her to finally decide to transition. “As soon as I got through my year of being with God, I was on fire. I had God on my side; I had my family by my side. It was a beautiful time for me.”

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The Mariachi Tradition

  • ​Native to western Mexico, the mariachi — and the ranchera musical genre so closely associated with it — is widely considered a symbol of Mexican music and culture. From their roots as performers of regional rural music genres, mariachis evolved in the 1930s, increasingly serving to accompany lead vocalists who were typically tough, rugged male stars of radio and film — from Jorge Negrete and Pedro Infante to Vicente Fernández.
  • The ranchera also had a number of female stars, notably Lola Beltrán, Amalia Mendoza and Lucha Villa. But it was Chavela Vargas, in the 1950s and ’60s, who defied convention by openly identifying as homosexual, dressing like a man and performing in an intensely masculine yet unique style that would earn her legendary status.
  • In the 1970s, the male mariachi archetype was disrupted by the arrival of Juan Gabriel, a prodigiously gifted singer-songwriter who recorded many ranchera classics while openly adopting a more ambiguous demeanor onstage.
  • Beyond starring as vocalists, women have also formed all-female mariachi bands in both Mexico and the United States. Of note are Mariachi Mujer Latina in Guadalajara, Mariachi Flor de Toloache in New York, and Mariachi Divas de Cyndi Shea in Los Angeles. Since 2014, the International Mariachi Women’s Festival has been celebrated annually in Los Angeles.
  • The digital era has turned ranchera into a global phenomenon, with mariachi ensembles being formed all around the world.

Together, these Mexican American musicians are breaking new ground in the traditionally macho musical genre, so much so that a recorded interview with the group has been archived in the Library of Congress. This is their story.

What attracted you to mariachi in the first place?

Carlos Samaniego: My grandfather was a mariachi musician in Sonora, Mexico, and my father played ’60s rock’n’roll in Mexico as well. My dad still plays guitar in his church. I grew up singing as a little boy; it’s something I’ve been doing my whole life. I’ve always liked it.

Natalia Melendez: I come from a musical family and was introduced to these sounds at a very young age. There was always live music around. The first time I heard a mariachi was at a family party when I was around 7 or 8, and I immediately gravitated to it. I can’t really explain why; it was an emotional reaction. The trumpets got my attention, and the violins oozed feeling — they just talked to me. There was this tall lady named Laura Sobrino, and she ended up being my music teacher. In addition to singing, I also play the violin.

Natalia, was Mexican heritage very present in your family life?

NM: My grandparents are from León, Guanajuato, and my parents were born in the U.S. Spanish is my second language, so I had to teach myself when I started performing. It was tough, because growing up, the only person who spoke Spanish was my grandmother.

Was there a specific ranchera, or Mexican folk song, that became your favorite right from the start?

CS: “Me nace del corazón,” written by Juan Gabriel, as performed by Rocío Dúrcal. We get tired of playing some songs, but I will never tire of this one. It’s actually a huapango, not a ranchera, but I love it performed by a mariachi.

NM: At the beginning, I couldn’t distinguish a ranchera from a bolero — I didn’t know anything. I just knew I loved mariachi music. Looking back, it’s a cliché to say that I like all rancheras, but I really do.

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Natalia Melendez plays violin and sings for Mariachi Arcoiris.
Courtesy Mariachi Arcoiris de Los Angeles

Even more than other Latin genres, mariachi music is steeped in machismo. What was it like growing up with those stereotypes?

NM: I definitely felt them. Growing up, I was expected to act like a boy — and I was so not that as a young person. I stood out. I didn’t really care what people thought, but it was confusing for someone so young to grow up in such a macho culture. When I got older, the more I performed as part of other mariachi groups, there was a lot of discrimination from both the public and closed-minded musicians. It was rocky, but I used that as ammo. The only thing I could do is let my music speak for itself — to sing and play better than my fellow musicians, so they would shut up and stop calling me maricón under their breath.

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CS: From the moment I came out, I’ve had to deal with those stereotypes. I don’t take injustice well. Like Natalia said, that kind of discrimination provides the very reason for having Mariachi Arcoiris and combating that machismo, that toxic masculinity. We provide a haven for both musicians and the audience. In the golden age of Mexican cinema, you would always see the man serenading a docile female. There are gay men who maybe would have loved to be serenaded themselves and thought it was never going to happen in their lifetime. But now we do serenade men. We get to give our audience that experience. At the end of the day, visibility creates normality.

Natalia, can you describe your experience transitioning?

NM: It was very liberating. Receiving my driver’s license in the mail was a new day for me. My journey was difficult; it took many years. But I’m much more content now, at peace with myself.

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Did your family struggle to accept your choice?

NM: Yes. I believe that’s why I transitioned rather late [in her early 30s]. I was juggling being myself and dealing with my machista family. I took some time off, spent a full year just by myself [with] the Lord — I’m a firm believer in Jesus Christ — soul searched, and found my own answers. In time, my family grew to accept me.

Who are the musicians who inspire you, and who would you like to inspire one day?

CS: Juan Gabriel is everything to me. He was from another generation and could not openly say that he was gay, but he never hid it. Musically, he runs the gamut with topics, feelings and genres. Natalia mentioned Laura Sobrino. She was also my teacher at one point, and the only woman to perform as an official member of Mariachi Sol de México. Also, the women in Mariachi Los Camperos. They are my role models because they broke down barriers [in a male-dominated genre].

NM: Being a transgender female, my voice is strong and deep. I studied Lola Beltrán and Rocío Dúrcal to see how I could apply their singing style to my own performances. In terms of influencing others, if there’s anybody out there who’s inspired by me, that is a blessing.

CS: A young teenage girl from Texas wrote to us on social media. She identifies as a woman and is currently transitioning. She told us that Natalia is her role model, and I’m her violin hero. When I created this group, it was mostly for selfish reasons. I needed to have this outlet for me and others like myself. But the result has been so much more. It makes me realize that we have an added responsibility, which we are willing to accept. We are providing a safe space for people who need it. If the group had to end tomorrow — which it won’t, of course — I would know that our goal has already been accomplished.

YouTube Video: So Are Men - Mariachi Arcoiris de Los Angeles

Ernesto Lechner is a contributing writer who covers music, film and culture. He’s a frequent contributor to the Latin Grammy Awards, and his work has also appeared in the Los Angeles Times, the Chicago Tribune, Rolling Stone and Billboard, among other major publications.

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