Arturo Ramirez has been roaming the same intersection of First Street and Boyle Avenue for 25 years, with instrument in hand and many a song.
But in recent years, the Mariachi Plaza in Boyle Heights has been fairly quiet. Mariachis have been affected by the economic recession, forcing some to lower their rates– something Ramirez says is cheapening his industry.
Now, Ramirez and over 100 other mariachis plan to march on Broadway in Downtown Los Angeles on Dec. 12 in a fight against exploitation and to demand legalization for all immigrants.
Mariachis have been organizing for their rights since earlier this year. In June, roughly 200 mariachis joined the Organizacion de Mariachis Unidos de Los Angeles (OMULA), which they say is not a union but a non-profit organization led by Ramirez that was originally started to support and protect mariachis economically.
“We don’t have retirement funds or health coverage so we thought that we could ourselves create a savings funds for our peers who were ill, hurt or were hospitalized and have no one to help. That’s why we created it, to have that economic support within us,” said Ramirez.
OMULA’s members pay monthly dues of $10; they respect the standard rates they agreed to charge: $50 per hour; and wear an identification badge to differentiate themselves from those they call “pirates.”
“We’ve had a surge of people who come here and dress like mariachis and charge half the price of what we charge and this affects us in addition to the crisis,” said Ramirez.
Eleno Caro, 69, is a member of the organization who says it’s important for mariachis to join efforts and support each other in tough economic times. But within the first few months, he’s already seen several members come and go.
“We need a lot of support,” said Caro. “A lot come into the organization and they leave. There’s a lack of interest.”
Most leave, says Ramirez, because they want to see the benefits right away.
“We are an organization in diapers”¦we just started and we will see the fruits of this after over a year or a year and a half,” Ramirez tells other members.
Since its conception, the organization has helped with funeral costs of one of their members and has also provided for others who have suffered illnesses.
But the money is running out and mariachis want to be sure they will be protected.
Although many marvel at the idea of joining an official musicians union–something that would give them the benefits and security they seek– it’s not an option for everyone.
A large number of mariachis are undocumented and cannot provide the legal requirements such as a social security number. Ramirez says legalization for all is necesary to help them stay afloat. In the meantime, OMULA will continue efforts and talks with the local musicians union while advocating for a path to legalization.
“We need this,” said Ramirez. “For our jobs, for our families.”