The ensemble, directed by Carlos Samaniego, was created as a safe space for mariachi musicians who identify as LGBTQ to play traditional Mexican music in a subculture that can, at times, suffer from high levels of “machista” (read: hyper-masculine gender roles). Mariachi Arcoiris de Los Angeles, on the other hand, is proud to have Natalia Melendez, the first openly transwoman in the history of mariachi, as one of its members.
Univision news produced a video series about Natalia's life and fight for equality in the mariachi world. The band has performed at several gay and trans pride events as well as weddings (of the same-sex and traditional variety).
San Francisco had a transwoman ranchera singer long before L.A.'s Mariachi Arcoiris: Teresita la Campesina. And although there's a difference between being a ranchera singer and being a mariachi, her history is also interesting and worth noting.
According to A Living Archive of Desire: Teresita la Campesina and the Embodiment of Queer Latino Community Histories, Campesina was standing up for trans rights in 1999 during performances throughout the Mission District. She would use the stage to urge crowd members to get out to the polls and vote to legalize gay marriage and protect trans rights.
In a March 1996 interview Campesina told Horacio N. Roque Ramirez about her pioneering role in traditional Mexican folk music.
“You're talking to me, a pioneer… So please wake up and smell the coffee![laugh]. I made it, and I am here testifying. But, that's why I tell all the people of today: you're so lucky to have these privileges. But then you're not, because in my days they didn't have AIDS. I caught syphilis, gonorrhea — I'm not ashamed to admit it, everything I've done in my life… I was very young and gorgeous. And I'm an old lady now, but looking whory, you know. I refuse to lay down and look like an antique. I like to varnish myself. And so I keep my voice and they say I still look good… They say I've got a young face sometimes. 'Oh she's had facelifts.' So what!?… But I had the money to do it with, and I didn't work a day for it. I made it all through prostitution. Because, why lie?”
Story originally reported at Latinousa.org.