LOS ANGELES, Ca. — A group of Los Angeles musicians is sharing their love for mariachi music and making history at the same time.
Mariachi Arcoiris de Los Angeles is the world’s first LBGTQ mariachi.
Arcoiris means rainbow in Spanish.
Mariachi music is a beloved genre in Hispanic culture. Its distinct and powerful sound is a staple at Mexican events and celebrations.
"The music is very powerful and dramatic and passionate," said Carlos Samaniego, founder of Mariachi Arcoiris.
While LGBTQ rights have expanded greatly in the past few decades, Samaniego said acceptance in Hispanic culture hasn't always followed at the same speed.
Members hope their music will unite people while also tackling the issue of gay rights in communities that haven't traditionally been as open to embracing this change.
Samaniego has been playing and singing mariachi professionally for more than 20 years.
He said the idea to form an LGBTQ mariachi first came to him in college during a gay pride event on campus.
The idea came to fruition but was short-lived, so Samaniego went back to performing with other professional mariachis in Los Angeles.
The violinist said the music has always been special to him, but his journey along the way wasn't always harmonious.
"As soon as I came out of the closet, I didn’t ever hide the fact that I was gay to anyone," Samaniego said. "That was a big no, no in the mariachi world.”
Known for its beautiful ballads and strong sound, Samaniego said mariachi music also reflects machismo culture.
"The music talks about the love of a woman and conquering the woman’s love or maybe even having several women and which one do I choose?" he said. "All of these things are sort of what’s embedded in our culture and our society being Mexican."
Samaniego said machismo culture is also embedded in the mariachi community, making it difficult at times to feel welcomed as a gay man.
"It was difficult to gain people’s respect and frankly I was bullied a lot," he said.
Samaniego wanted to create a safe space for other musicians like him, so he brought Mariachi Arcoiris back to life in 2016.
"It feels really nice to be in an environment where we can just be ourselves and not only be ourselves, but we celebrate it," he said.
Today, there are 13 members in the group including Natalia Melendez, the first transgender woman in the history of mariachi.
"It's pretty amazing. It’s a big responsibility for us to represent our music and to represent the LGBTQ community," Melendez said. "When I’m on stage and I get to sing, that’s my time to like live, live as Beyoncé, the little Mexican Beyoncé."
One of the original members, Melendez has also dealt with her own share of criticism.
"When I did transition, it got harder. Nobody wanted to hire me. It’s like they were afraid to take me on, like I was different. I was still the same musician. I was still the same singer," she said.
Mariachi Arcoiris is not only breaking stereotypes, but they’re also introducing Mexican culture to the LGBTQ community.
The group is still met with some resistance, mainly online, but members believe their music speaks for itself.
"The music is, is our armor. It's how we can defend ourselves," Samaniego said.
"We uphold our musicality very, very high and we respect the mariachi music. We respect it, we don’t change it. We just put our little stamp on it," Melendez added.
With every strum of the guitarron, each stroke of the violin, and every note sung, Mariachi Arcoiris hopes audiences will hear their message of love and acceptance.
"Everybody that was born and walks this earth deserves love," Melendez said.