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.

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.

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