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Whoa, Mex-i-co 

They interrupt your conversation, serenade your girlfriend, then ask for a tip. They're an S.F. institution. And they don't play "mariachi" music.

Wednesday, Dec 24 2003
It's just past dark, and we're chasing a mariachi east on 22nd Street in the rain. Ahead of us, Rafael Portillo darts across Mission though a field of oncoming headlights in both directions. We've been after him for four blocks and -- even though Portillo's diminutive 4-foot-11-inch stature allows only short strides and his flight is burdened by a disproportionately large guitar and his slick-soled cowboy boots slip on the puddles -- we can't seem to catch up.

My trusty translator sees Portillo's white cowboy hat duck into a warmly lit bar. By the time we get there we're soaked to the bone and out of breath. Portillo, on the other hand, looks as calm and collected as can be. He stands between an elderly man with a pencil-thin mustache who holds a weathered nylon-string guitar and a young guy rattling a pair of cheap maracas. The three are tableside to a young couple and singing, in harmony and at the top of their lungs, a familiar-sounding upbeat tune in Spanish. The translation goes something like this:

It is already closed, and locked with three padlocks,

And secured, and locked with three padlocks.

Because your parents are jealous,

And they are afraid of my love for you.

One of the cooks comes out from the back to tap along on a chopping board with a square cleaver. But the girl at the table isn't feeling it. She has dropped her fork. She is blushing. The maraca kid leans in, shaking the maracas with his pinkie extended the way some people hold a teacup. A gold cross dangles from his neck. All three men seem to have forgotten about the girl's date as they pose the pining question of the chorus:

Ask your father and mother

If they've ever enjoyed love,

If they ever were in love.

Was the black door closed on them as well?

By the time they get to the second verse, the initial surprise from their impromptu performance has worn off. Everybody who dines in the Mission is used to this routine, and though some diners pause to listen, others promptly turn up the volume on their conversations.

When Portillo's band finishes two songs later, we finally gain an audience with him. He stands in front of us smiling broadly, holding open his hat for a tip. We drop in a five, but before we can make small talk he and his compatriots head back out into the rain. So we chug beers. Pay waitress. Take chase.

As a newcomer to San Francisco, I've wondered about these guys since the first night I went out in the Mission. It seemed like they were everywhere -- hanging out at the bus stop with cheap guitars in hand, wheeling tiny amplifiers down the sidewalk, showing up uninvited whenever I'd order a combination plate. Like carnival barkers, these wandering musical groups smear the line between entertainment and annoyance. Sure, the ambience is nice when you're throwing back cervezas and are surprised by a Mexicali ballad, but just as often a tuneless crooner can wreck the vibe and still cajole you into forking over a couple of bucks.

If nothing else, for all the times I'd felt hustled, I wanted to get a little something back, a few answers to some questions I had about the strolling minstrel's racket. Namely, are these musicians practitioners of an endangered musical tradition that has managed to migrate this far north, or just beggars with guitars?

Later, we catch Portillo and company on the sidewalk, en route to their next appointment. Trusty Translator explains that we're working for a periódico. We want to ask a few questions. We're interested in meeting mariachi players. It may have been Portillo whom we spotted first, but Pablo Sonora, the group's elder, has had a few beers and does most of the talking. He promptly doles out a vocabulary lesson.

"We aren't really mariachis," Sonora contends in quick Spanish. "Mariachis have trumpets, big hats, and fancy uniforms." He holds his hands up to his face to demonstrate, miming Dizzy Gillespie's puffed-cheek profile. He explains that most of the strolling musicians who frequent the Mission bars and restaurants are probably called "mariachis" by the gringos who drop the tips, but the tunes of their trade are really música norteña.

Música norteña blends traditional folk and popular songs from northern Mexico. There aren't any specific rules about the size or instrumentation of the ensembles that stroll through the area; though this trio sticks together on the weekends, Portillo often goes it alone during the week.

Like most of the other wandering groups, this informal threesome gets together after their day jobs to make a little extra bread. "Ask him what his day job is," I instruct my bilingual sidekick. Apparently Sonora doesn't need it in Spanish. "I am a painter," he offers in English. "We paint houses."

When we ask Portillo what he does for a day job he says he hasn't had much luck finding anything since he moved here from El Salvador three months ago. When the minstrel act doesn't pay well, he hangs out at the U-Haul rental center to do pickup work on moving crews.

On a busy night the musicians hit as many as a dozen bars, mostly in a 10-square-block area along Mission and Valencia, between 16th and 30th streets. At the end of a good night their hats can contain as much as $300.

Tonight is one of the first times Sonora has been on the circuit with his son, the maraca player, Juan Luis, who relocated from Nogales, Mexico, to San Francisco only a week ago. Juan Luis knows every song of the hugely popular contemporary Mexican group Los Tigres del Norte, but Sonora is teaching him more traditional ranchera love songs and Spanish-influenced boleros. It might be the beers talking, but Sonora claims to know 800 songs by heart.

"That's nothing compared to the older guys," Sonora claims. "Some of them know 4,800 songs. Maybe if we had a few days together I could play you every song I know. And it's not just music from Mexico; I can do Argentinean songs and the Beatles. I can do Elvis."

We approach Esperpento, a bustling tapas place on 22nd between Mission and Valencia. After they get the approving nod from the maitre d', the guys start up immediately. The guitars have gone wildly out of tune during the rainy walk, but no one seems to care. When the trio opens with the "black door" number, the claim of 800 songs seems pretty far-fetched, but when the song ends, Sonora tunes up, throws us a knowing look, and launches into the Beatles' "Ticket to Ride." The Mex-tinged British Invasion stuff is a huge hit. When it's done, some ruddy-faced frat boy starts demanding "I Am the Walrus," but the trio concludes its set with a ranchero standard. When that's finished, Portillo appears before the translator and me with the open hat as if he's never laid eyes on us.

Now we're at the corner of 22nd and Valencia, San Francisco's norteña ground zero. Portillo spent some time hoofing around with norteña groups in L.A., but he says that this neighborhood has a greater concentration of strolling musicians than any in Southern California. As if to confirm his comment, we spot an accordion-led group across the street, which plays a style of music called conjunto, a hybrid of the folk music of Mexico and the polkas of German immigrants that originated along the Tex-Mex border. At the same time, an impressive-looking quartet comes up the sidewalk, wearing studded suits with short-cut jackets and carrying instruments in hard-shell cases.

Fearing that these two groups may have already drained the big tips from the neighborhood, Portillo leads us south on Valencia. There are a couple of flops, including a sparsely populated Chinese restaurant and a bar where, halfway though the band's first song, someone decides that he'd rather hear the Strokes blasting out of the jukebox.

"We play anywhere that will let us, but sometimes people just don't want to listen," Sonora says. "But we also play these songs for ourselves, just because it feels good." Then he taps on his chest and says to me in English: "The songs are here, el corazón, in the heart."

It's a lovely sentiment, but Sonora's earlier buzz is waning. The brisk chase that kicked off the evening has slowed to a soggy trot, and Juan Luis and Portillo are fading fast. The restaurants are clearing out and it's starting to look like the end of the night is going to be a complete wash. The musicians haven't made much money, they're all wet, and a couple of pesky tag-alongs won't stop asking them questions.

Then we walk past La Rondella, on Valencia near 20th. People regularly pack the bar here to dance to raucous Latino dance-hall hits on the jukebox, and a 10-piece mariachi band plays five nights a week in the back dining area. As we pass, a couple of elaborately dressed trumpet players from the house band offer some key information: They're on a 15-minute break and a table of drinkers in the dining room is calling for more music.

Before we can get a round of beers, Portillo, Sonora, and Juan Luis have tuned up and started playing. A big man at the head of the table is pounding an empty beer bottle along with the beat so forcefully that it seems like it could smash at any second. The lyrics of the song are sweet and nostalgic, about a dancing horse and a good party:

Let the horse dance

As the horseman orders ...

I'll have help singing my songs

From my friends in the band.

A tipsy couple at the table chimes in for the chorus, but the melody goes bittersweet. This is the group's swan song, and after they finish the musicians will call it a night. They will take off their hats around the corner of the building, divvy up the evening's small take, and bid us adios with a nod. They will walk back to Mission Street and wait at the bus stop with guitars in hand, then start again tomorrow, when maybe it won't be raining. Maybe there won't be tag-alongs. Maybe every restaurant will be overflowing with happy drunks like these, who will sing along real loud and tip real big. And maybe, everything will just be better. But right now, as Portillo and Sonora deliver the final lines in ragged, throaty harmony, the song's chorus seems as melancholy as it is optimistic:

We get a little drunk

On tequila and beer

Some drink because they are happy

Others drink because they are sad.

It's a confession and a promise, one of those moments of heart-pounding expression that are worth the chase, the shoddy Beatles covers, and every remaining dollar in my wallet. The chorus ends as the musicians demand:

Bartender, give us some more drinks

Until God wakes up again.

For a moment, I hope God never does.

About The Author

Nate Cavalieri


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