There’s not enough room for the whole band in the living room of the East L.A. home where Mariachi Arcoiris de Los Angeles rehearses on Friday nights, so the brass section winds up in the kitchen.
From his perch there, singer and trumpeter Rudy Vasquez can’t make eye contact with all of his fellow band members, but everyone can easily hear the bright ba-da-ba-da-daaaah of his instrument ringing out from the adjacent room. As the group works on a rendition of “Tu Sigues Siendo el Mismo,” bandleader Carlos Samaniego leans around an overstuffed leather sectional, peering through the kitchen door to cue the trumpets when it’s their turn to insert a cheerful riff.
Vasquez, 31, has been playing in mariachi bands since he was 10 years old. Growing up in the Los Angeles suburb of San Fernando, he was surrounded by mariachi music. The son of a public school music teacher who also plays mariachi trumpet, Vasquez, along with his three siblings, would tag along when his dad took his middle school mariachi group to state and national conferences.
At those gatherings, Vasquez met and performed with elite groups like Mariachi Cobre. Also there was San Fernando’s esteemed Mariachi Los Camperos, with whom he studied and performed from 2001 to 2011 as part of the organization’s master apprentice program.
But even as he excelled as a mariachi performer throughout his teens and early 20s, Vasquez struggled with a big secret: he was gay, and no one in his family or his band knew.
Then one day about five years ago, Vasquez was scrolling through a Facebook forum when he came across a call for musicians to join Mariachi Arcoiris, the self-proclaimed world’s first, and at the time only, LGBTQ mariachi band. (According to Samaniego, a new group in Colombia called Nuestro Orgullo, or “our pride,” recently became the world’s second LGBTQ mariachi.)
Vasquez was intrigued by the Facebook ad, and he eventually joined Arcoiris (the name is Spanish for “rainbow”). Performing in the group helped him eventually come out to his family, he says.
Samaniego formed Mariachi Arcoiris in Los Angeles in 2014. He had first attempted to start an LGBTQ mariachi as a college student in 2000, but wasn’t able to assemble a sustainable group. This time around, Samaniego’s band is thriving. Having recently celebrated its fifth birthday and recorded its first album, Mariachi Arcoiris performs regularly at birthday parties and gay weddings, quinceañeras and Pride events.
Samaniego, 38, says he formed Mariachi Arcoiris after being made fun of in other groups. “I felt the bullying,” he says. “I felt I wasn’t treated with the same respect as the other musicians were, even though I could play the music and sing just as well.”
Mariachi culture, Samaniego explains, is steeped in machismo. “Being openly gay, bisexual, or transgender has never been accepted,” the bandleader says. “It’s been very difficult even for women to break into mariachi culture. I’d love for our group to participate in mariachi festivals. We haven’t officially been barred or uninvited, but we don’t get invited, either.”
Samaniego, who earned a degree in music from Cal State Los Angeles studying classical violin and opera, single-handedly manages administrative duties for Mariachi Arcoiris while holding down a full-time job as a court translator.
With a clear, almost angelic singing voice and an agile command of the violin, Samaniego is also able to recognize the talents of his group’s members. His support helped Natalia Melendez, an original Arcoiris member and, he believes, the world’s only openly transgender mariachi singer and instrumentalist, develop into a confident, charismatic artist. And he was the first bandleader to encourage Vasquez to sing in addition to playing his trumpet.
“If it wasn’t for this group and then also for Carlos especially, I wouldn’t have been singing solo,” Vasquez says. “I never felt more nurtured as a person and a musician than I do in this group.” He continues, “Before I joined Arcoiris, me being a mariachi and me being myself were like two separate entities. Now they’re both united when I’m here. In Mariachi Arcoiris, I am my complete self, my most authentic self.”
On Sunday night, the group plays its regular gig at Club Tempo, a Hollywood gay bar where Latino men in shiny boots and sequined tops enjoy two-for-one domestic beers as they dance to the mariachi’s infectious melodies. In ornately embroidered bolero jackets and rainbow-striped silk ties, Mariachi Arcoiris draws loud, enthusiastic yelps of “Ayayayayay” from the crowd at the beginning of each song.
When the group performs a passionate, traditionally heterosexual romantic number, a male soloist takes the part usually sung by a woman, instantly altering the song’s gender dynamics. And in the middle of the dance floor, two men in wide-brimmed cowboy hats hold each other close and gaze into each other’s eyes as they sing along, swaying to the music.
Based in Los Angeles, Catherine Womack covers music for Alta. She wrote about the L.A. Philharmonic in the Summer 2019 issue.