Unnamed conjunto street musicians play the bajo sexto and tololoche in front of La Parrilla Restaurant in Boyle Heights. Photo by Antonio Mejías-Rentas

The accordion sounds of norteño music can often be heard in Boyle Heights’ most popular restaurants. Playing music made popular by artists like Ramón Ayala and Los Alegres de Terán, local conjuntos help preserve a cultural tradition and take customers on a sentimental journey to their native Mexico.

For years, local conjunto musicians have gathered near El Apetito restaurant, on the corner of César Chávez Avenue and Chicago Street, where people know they can contact them for parties, fairs and other events. It is also a place where musicians rest after playing for tips at nearby restaurants like El Apetito or La Parrilla, across the street.

Last year, the musicians built a shrine at their gathering spot for the patroness of musicians, Santa Cecilia, hoping to make the spot the official gathering place for conjuntos –akin to Boyle Heights’ famed Mariachi Plaza for mariachi musicians.

A typical conjunto group consists of three players: the bajo sexto, which is a Mexican12-string bass guitar; a tololoche, a cello-like instrument used to produce low harmonies and the accordion. Sometimes there’s a tarola or side drum, to produce a style known as tamborazo.

The type of music these musicians perform is often improvised. They work with the same romantic and ranchero repertory of the mariachis, but produce a much different sound from those larger groups, which have violins and trumpets.

Sweet music, but a tough living

Life for these roaming musicians is not easy, as they struggle to make a living.

Serafín Mendoza Parache stands in front of niche dedicated to Santa Cecilia.

Serafín Mendoza Parache belongs to the norteño group Los Aventureros del Valle and often works out of the Chicago Street spot. The 71-year-old native of the Mexican state of Guanajuato has been a full-time conjunto musician since the age of 15. A self-taught guitarist, he learned by “looking, hearing and asking.”

Mendoza Parache plays the tololoche and the tarola and goes from restaurant to restaurant, hoping to play a few songs and earn his pay. “Yes, I go every day to the restaurants, if I can,” said Parache. “I try to hit eight to 10 places, in those eight to 10 places you make enough to eat, and then you come back.”

He earns $20 to $30 a day, sometimes a bit more and other days, nothing. “For me, I’m happy making enough to live with my music, because it’s inside of me. I like music, and I make a living with music.”

Another musician, who identified himself simply as Pedro, or by his nickname “El Chilo,” said he used to have a full-time job and played with a conjunto on weekends. Now he is a full-time musician in Boyle Heights.

“Almost every day we come around, and we get gigs,” said El Chilo, who plays bajo sexto.

The best gigs, he said, are “private affairs, like birthdays, weddings or quinceañeras –or folks simply having a carne asada in their yard and they say, ‘come along and play some songs,’ and two or three of us get together –bajo sexto, accordion or tololoche– and we go play.”

The music of the working class

Conjunto music first started in Northern Mexico and Southern Texas around the 1860s or ’70s, but spread throughout most of the Southwest by the first part of the 20th Century. According to Manuel Pena, an anthropologist who specializes in Mexican American folklore and music, it is often the music played in working class neighborhoods like Boyle Heights.

Conjunto continues to represent an alternative musical ideology and in this way it helps preserve a Mexican, working-class culture wherever it takes root on American soil,” Pena wrote. “Conjunto has more than held its own against other types of music that appear from time to time to challenge its dominance among a vast audience of working-class people.”

“We borrow from all of the material that’s out there, everything that other musicians have recorded over the years, everything that’s played on the radio or TV, we all work that repertory because that’s the bread that feeds us,” says Mendoza Parache.

Last year, Parache Mendoza and other musicians got together to build the shrine to Santa Cecilia and benches for the musicians who wait for jobs on Chicago Street. Pánfilo Ibarra Parga acted as the group’s treasurer and helped collect donations from musicians for the shrine.

“It’s to help the musicians, because this is where they get work,” said Ibarra, who earns his living selling fruit and musical instruments.

They received assistance from the office of Councilmember José Huízar, from local tenants’ group Unión de Vecinos and from the non-profit Shared Spaces. Construction of the altar took some months, because volunteers from the group Boyle Heights Builders only worked on Saturdays.

One of those volunteers was 16-year-old Juan Naranjo. “I’ve been working with Unión de Vecinos for seven years,” the teen builder said. “I like to help the community look better, and I love construction, so we make our own projects.”

Building a shrine to Santa Cecilia

Detail of niche dedicated to Santa Cecilia

In the days leading to the November 22 Feast of Santa Cecilia, volunteers worked hard to finish the job and to decorate the shrine with an image of the saint, as well as a crucifix and a figure of the Virgin of Guadalupe.

There was a festive celebration, starting at noon November 22, when various musicians paid tribute at the Santa Cecilia shrine. They circled around and sang songs, including the traditional Mañanitas. Mendoza Parache, Parga and other volunteers were present to celebrate their achievement reaffirming the conjunto musician’s spot. In the early evening hours, nearby residents gathered around to enjoy the music and festivities and enjoy home-made pozole, hot atole and pan dulce.

“This is exactly the kind of project that we want to do, making the neighborhood better for people who have roots here,” said Steve Rasmussen Cancian, a principal with Shared Spaces and member of Unión de Vecinos.

Mendoza Parache believes this shrine will create opportunities for his fellow musicians and himself. “We want to open doors to new employment in order to live better, and since we make a living through our music, we need to open those doors,” he said.

Libertad González is a junior at Bravo Medical Magnet High School.

All photos by Antonio Mejías-Rentas

Libertad Gonzalez is a senior at Francisco Bravo Medical Magnet High School. She enjoys photography, reading and writing. She will be attending San Francisco State University as a Photojournalism major...

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