In this issue of Mariachiando we jump from 1999 (last post) to Nochebuena 2006…
In high school, I was part of a mariachi group with other high school friends. We formed it sometime before the beginning of high school in 2003 (we were all in the same year at school) and we performed at private parties, etc., throughout Southern California. Though it was a (tax-free) source of income for many of us, we always hesitated about taking gigs after December 15th because members traveled with their families or had very packed calendars. In 2006, however, almost all our members stayed in South Gate for Christmas and we accepted a gig on Nochebuena only because it was a one-hour performance in South Gate.
We only had one replacement for that night, another mariachi musician from South Gate and a friend of ours (always up to substitute in our group). I arrived at the house about half-an-hour early and warmed up with other the mariachis outside. It was a really cold night, notwithstanding the fact that we were wearing mariachi trajes (not the best protection for legs), but looking forward to a quick performance where there wouldn’t be anyone drunk.
We went in and performed in their backyard. Though they had hired us, they did not seem too much into the songs. Maybe because it was Christmastime, who knows. They had a fire going and all the embers and smoke were blowing toward us, messing up our singing and choking us throughout the performance. When our hour was done, we bowed and started to take our leave. One of the men stopped us and said (in Spanish), “Stay for one more hour.”
“Can’t, it’s Nochebuena and we agreed to only one hour. We have to go with our families.”
“I’ll pay 500 dollars for the second hour.” “Sorry, we really have to go.” “$700?” “Look, we must…” “$1,000?” “We’ll talk about it with the rest of the members.”
One hour of our time in Nochebuena was worth $1,000 to him. Our first hour went for $300.
We thought he was bluffing about the money. He gave us $500 at the beginning of the hour and said he would give us the rest at the end of the hour. He kept his word.
We started our second hour, happy we were each getting over $100 for that night. He was happy to have us at the family reunion for one more hour, a bit more cheer for the house.
About twenty minutes into the hour, a woman of the house came to us and asked, “Can you come inside and play a song for us?” We agreed, thinking the song would be for people inside the house for warmth.
As we filed into the house through the kitchen, I noticed everyone outside the house followed us inside. None of us knew who were playing for. In a few seconds, it was all too clear.
In their living room, between the Christmas tree and gifts and above the mantelpiece, was a large framed picture of a child, no more than ten years old. On a stool, there was his backpack and some toys. On the mantelpiece, an unwrapped tamal, a glass of milk and two cookies.
I knew what song they would request, secretly hoping they would prove me wrong and request another song.
“We want you… to play Amor eterno for our son…”
We looked at each other. Our singer for Amor eterno was sick at the time. Luckily, another of the singers knew the lyrics and could sing in range. We were saved from the embarrassment of not being able to play the song.
We mariachis stood in a semicircle behind the couches. The family sat on the couches or in the doorways. Everybody in the room was looking at his visage.
Inside, I was worried about when family members would start crying. After playing “Amor eterno” (a song we vowed years earlier to play only when requested) many times, it was always new to me when people started crying to the song. For some, it was soon as the song started. Other erupt at “Como quisiera, ay…”
Too many people started crying at different times that I stopped paying attention to who cried when. Everyone in the room started singing to their son, their nephew. His mother broke down in tears in a couch, comforted by his madrina. His father stood against a wall, stone-quiet.
I have never liked to play Amor eterno because there is always at least one person who starts crying. I’m fine with one or two people singing, but when more start singing and crying to the song, I feel bad for them and either want to start crying or hang my head down. I’ve spoken with other mariachis and we all feel the same way. Our detachment from performing can only go so far.
Once the song was over, the family was still sobbing. We filed out and finished our hour outside the house, colder than before we entered.
The man who paid us $1000 for the extra hour was in the street, burning rubber in his truck, drunk. Family had to drag him out of the truck.
Within an hour, we were all home with our families. I went straight to sleep.
I wonder what moves people to allow complete strangers to be part of their private grieving. I’ve thought about that family every Nochebuena since then.Crossposted at my blog.