‘Queering Mariachi’ introduces first all LGBTQ+ mariachi group, Mariachi Arcoíris De Los Ángeles

Natalia Melendez, center, who is believed to be the first openly transgender female mariachi performer, sings with Mariachi Arcoiris (Rainbow Mariachi) during a performance at a San Fernando LGBT Center event in San Fernando, Calif., on Aug. 15, 2015. (Anne Cusack/Los Angeles Times/TNS)

The Cross-Cultural and Gender Center (CCGC) continued its celebration for Hispanic Heritage Month with a virtual interview session featuring two members of the first all-LGBTQ+ mariachi group, Mariachi Arcoiris De Los Ángeles

Fresno State students, community members and local high school Gay Straight Alliance (GSA) clubs listened  to the origin story of the group through the accounts of Carlos Samaniego, the creator of Mariachi Arcoiris, and Natalia Melendez, the first ever transexual mariachi musician. 

Samaniego shared how the mariachi group was created and its two beginnings. 

He said he felt a “personal need” to create the group during his time as an undergraduate student at California State University, Los Angeles, in the early 2000s. During this time, Samaniego had just come to terms with his sexuality and wanted to surround himself with a positive support system. 

Samaniego searched for something to be a part of on campus and found the Gay and Lesbian Alliance (GLA) club, which set up the opportunity for him to create the mariachi group. 

The GLA hosted a yearly pride event for Cal State LA where students could volunteer to participate in a mock wedding to protest the law against same-sex marrige at the time. At this event, Samaniego came up with the idea for the first ever all-LGBTQ+ mariachi group.

“For more than personal reasons of needing to have this group, I felt that I couldn’t be the only one going through this. There have to be other musicians that need this space as well,” Samaniego said.

Both Samaniego and Melendez were part of the original group. They performed for a couple of months until the group “fizzled out.” 

Samaniego continued on his career as a mariachi musician, performing in groups from the West Coast to the East Coast. Through these groups, he encountered discrimination and homophobia. In 2013, he decided to bring Mariachi Arcoiris back to life as a safe space for other LGBTQ+ musicians. 

“We rehearsed and we tried to make something out of nothing, and it was great,” Melendez said. 

Samaniego and Melendez were both raised in a musical environment, and their love for mariachi music developed at a young age. Their Latine roots and love for music inspired their pursuit for mariachi music. 

Melendez found her love for mariachi music at a family party when she was young. She didn’t speak Spanish at the time, but she knew that was the music she wanted to create. 

Before joining Mariachi Arcoiris for the second time, Melendez had already transitioned and was at a comfortable place in her life. So when Samaniego gave her a call about creating the group again, she was up for the journey, not knowing what a “lightforce” it would turn out to be for the LGBTQ+ community. 

“For me, being an elder [at 42 years old], it’s a blessing to me, just to be a part of it. Just to be a part of the movement and what [Samaniego’s] dreams have created for other people out there. The platform that [has] given them the safe space to express themselves,” Melendez said. 

Melendez’s story became something that Samaniego said would change the paradigm of mariachi music and its “machista,” or toxic masculinity background. He said her being the first transgender woman in the history of mariachi music would make her a role model for many people. 

“It’s important for us to state this fact because with visibility comes normality,” Samaniego said. 

Mariachi Arcoiris has continued to make history for its culture and sexuality through its music. The band is featured in the U.S. Library of Congress; in a textbook from the Oxford University Press; and recently performed in the Zócalo in Mexico City for Mexico’s Pride event. 

The band’s performance in Mexico was a full circle moment for Samaniego and Melendez, who were able to perform the music they love where it was created. 

“To be there live and to share our music and to be on the stage and people loving it. What can you say about that? That’s history for us,” Melendez said. 

The group continues to perform for various occasions. Mariachi Arcoiris’s weekends for this month are booked for the celebration of Hispanic Heritage Month and National Coming Out Day on Tuesday, Oct. 11. 

Mariachi Arcoiris is currently recording its second album. Its first album, “Mariachi Arcoiris,” can be found on Apple Music, Spotify and Amazon Music.

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