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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.”
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.