Mariachi mecca: Mexico City's Plaza Garibaldi soldiers on
Driving toward Plaza Garibaldi at dusk, the square confronts you before you even arrive.
Men in bright outfits and tight trousers with buckles running down the legs flag down your car and offer you a song.
Being accosted in the car makes for an unusual encounter for first-timers here, especially as the plaza is still a few blocks away.
Mexico City’s mariachi mecca is tinged with a late afternoon glow and there are already crowds of people gathering for an evening of song.
Around a thousand mariachis play in the square at different times, serenading couples and small families with aching ballads for a price. People are drawn by the unique experience of having an entire band play and sing directly to them -- if only for a few minutes.
Violinist Cesar Coronado has been playing for 30 years. He arrives at 5 p.m. and his work -- paid for by various comers and goers in the square who pay for song or two -- ebbs and flows throughout the evening.
“We don’t have a specific timetable, there is no pattern,” he says. “What we want is for people to leave happy -- especially the tourists from abroad so they can get to know our music.”
Tenampa: Mexico's mariachi mecca
Unlike most other mariachis, Coronado has a residence inside the legendary Salon Tenampa, which proudly dominates one side of the plaza.
The roots of mariachi music in Mexico City can be traced to this bar. It was opened in 1925 by Juan Hernandez, who began luring mariachis from his native Guadalajara to play what was then an obscure regional genre.
They began a habit of having one band play outside in the square while another entertained inside -- and Garibaldi’s tradition was born. Later, when Mexican cinema began making films featuring famous singers, the music became ingrained in the nation’s culture.
Walk inside Tenampa and you're immediately hit by a deep sense of history.
The walls are covered in murals of onetime mariachi heroes and the bar area is preserved from its golden era, with red leather booths and waiters in bow ties.
You'll also get frisked for weapons on your way in.
The pat down alerts you to the underside of Garibaldi Plaza. The area has been in slow decline for decades and is need of regeneration.
For some, its contemporary image is of a seedy square full of drunks, where crime has made the atmosphere dangerous.
The plaza is adjacent to a neighborhood known for being unsafe, but a heavy police presence shows the government is taking steps to secure a tourist icon.
“For many years free consumption of alcohol was allowed in the square,” says Isaias Muñoz, a manager at Tenampa for 15 years. “That created a bad image because sometimes you would have 3,000 people in the square drinking at the same time and that will create problems.”
Last year, a law restricted alcohol consumption in public places.
“The image has changed,” Muñoz continues. “We are turning it around again, to what Garibaldi once was: a place for leisure, family and culture.”
Others strongly disagree and the alcohol issue has become a flashpoint.
“The mariachi is in crisis right now,” says Antonio Corrubia, leader of the local mariachi union.
“When the authorities made the decision that people can’t walk around with a beer or rum, fewer people come and the musicians have less work. I have colleagues who work here all night and make 10 dollars.”
On a recent Saturday night in Garibaldi, the square was dry and only half full. But some tourists still came to take in the experience -- with or without alcohol.
“I love the atmosphere,” said one French tourist. “It's fiesta.”
Inside Tenampa -- a licensed bar -- the party was in full force.
Cesar and his nine-piece band were engaged by a long table of well-heeled Mexican men for an hour. Intensity was poured into every song, which the band members have been playing for decades
At $10 a song, money was clearly not a consideration for the group of revelers -- Bacardi bottles littered the table and men downed 50/50 Cuba libres in one gulp.
Drunken hugging and singing inevitably followed -- a show of genuine love of the music, not an ironic appreciation of its sometimes kitsch image.
At the bar, staff poured drinks with the battle-hardened demeanor of Fallujah veterans. Draft beer, Cuba libres and, of course, tequila.
There was an even mix of men and women in the room and the bar is one of the few places in Mexico where rich and poor share a Saturday night out together.
For Cesar, a long evening of playing still awaited -- things at Tenampa normally wind down at 4 a.m.
“We have a saying in Mexico,” he said, placing a plug into his ear (he stands next to the trumpeter). “Do it until the body gives up.”
Despite a shifting culture and more stringent local rules around this traditional art form in a classic Mexico City plaza, no one appears to be giving up any time soon.
Salon Tenampa, Plaza Garibaldi # 12 Col. Centro, Mexico City, D.F.; +52 55 26 61 76; www.salontenampa.com