This story originally appeared in The San Francisco Chronicle, July 20, 2012.
My heart sinks when I see the black gate in front of the window. “Lunes cerrado,” says a hand-scrawled sign on the door of La Casa del Mariachi. Closed Mondays.
Everything I need is in the window display: the straight-cut pants adorned with silver botonaduras; matching chuleco (vest); the chamarra (short jacket); and the moño, a fluffy bow tie. These items together are called a “traje de charro,” which loosely translates as “cowboy suit,” and refers specifically to the outfit worn by the lead singer of a mariachi band. Sold separately and equally important: boots, belt, buckle and sombrero.
I have to return home to Colorado tomorrow morning. My mission – to go to East Los Angeles to buy an authentic traje de charro – looks bleak. I wonder if I should bail and go to Plaza Olvera, an important historical part of Los Angeles with a ton of touristy souvenir shops.
“Everything is ‘Made in China’ on Olvera Street,” someone told me at a party last night. “Mariachi Plaza is the real deal.”
That is where I am, at the corner of First Street and Boyle Avenue, the cradle of mariachi music in the United States, a musical genre recently declared by UNESCO as an “Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.”
I step into the plaza and look around. There are grand, music-themed murals of mustachioed men; a painting of the Virgin of Guadalupe blessing a swirling stream of guitars; a bigger-than-life bronze of a twirling female dancer; and a smattering of tables with lounging, half-uniformed musicians, waiting for customers.
“Caballeros,” I say, approaching a group of men. Gentlemen! Nobody stands or even looks at me, except one paunchy man who is wearing black-and-silver pants, white shirt and a loosely tied moño.
“Maybe you can help me,” I say. “I need a traje de charro, but the store is closed.”
“Is the suit for you?” he asks.
“Yes,” I say.
He is thinking. “I have some extra trajes de charro at home,” he says. “From the groups I used to play in. I can sell you one of those for much cheaper than the stores.”
The man is built like a fireplug, thick and stocky. Just like me. He stands up, and I note his beefy shoulders and expansive chest. Just like mine.
“Cesar Gutierrez,” he says, extending his hand. We are the same height. “Josué,” I say. “What color are the suits?”
“One is marine blue,” he says. “Another is gray and green. Another is a light brown. I’ll have to drive home to get them. Go to the mercadito for the hat,” he advises. “It’s on First Street, just past the cemetery. We’ll meet here at 3:30.”
Two hours later, in Mariachi Plaza, Cesar lays the suits across a table. The tan one is moth-eaten and the gray one is, well, gray. But the blue suit is in excellent condition, and Cesar helps me put on the vest and jacket.
“Stand up straight,” he orders. It could have been tailored just for me.
Cesar looks at me critically.
“It’s good,” he says. “The pants are a little tight, but that’s good.”
“Is the jacket supposed to be this high?”
“Yes, man, of course,” he says, “so the people can see your belt.”
I pay Cesar cash, and he hands me a dark blue moño. “I wore that suit when I was in a group called Mariachi Sol de America. You can find them on YouTube,” he says.
“What instrument do you play?” I ask.
“Guitarra y biguela,” he says. As I begin to remove the jacket, Cesar puts his hand on my arm. “If you are going to remain in this barrio, you should keep the traje on.”
That’s the opposite advice I expect, a white gabacho from Colorado parading around East L.A. in a traje de charro seems like asking for trouble, but Cesar explains: “The thieves, pandilleros and gangbangers, they’ll leave you alone. They respect mariachis.”
The next morning, as I board my flight to Denver and fuss with hanging my outfit and stowing my sombrero, a fellow passenger asks, “Are you a mariachi?”
I am a Spanish teacher in Boulder, Colo., for first through eighth grades, so I have a small repertoire of traditional Mexican and Latin American songs I can sing. I can shout a decent grita, the half-laugh/half-sob that mariachi crowds love. I have a mustache.
Still, I would never have labeled myself an actual mariachi. I’ve never owned a uniform, and besides, it felt like intruding a culture, instead of celebrating. Now, though, I can hear the botonaduras of my charro suit jingling as I close the latch on the hanging closet.
“Yes,” I say. “Yes, I am.” And I take my seat.
Joshua Berman is a freelance writer.