REPORTING FROM MEXICO CITY -- Like most of the mariachi musicians milling about Plaza Garibaldi this early morning waiting for work, Juan Ramon Ramirez had his hands in his pockets, not on the strings of his vihuela.
It was cold, and there weren't many customers out looking for a song. Not even just a few days after Mexico's most well-known musical tradition got a dose of good news.
Mariachi music -- who hasn't ever heard that spirited strumming? -- now belongs to the world's list of "Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity," as declared this week by the United Nations.
Ramirez, 62, had heard about the U.N. designation and it sounded good to him.
"I hope it turns into more work," he said, not appearing very hopeful. "Well, it could turn into more work."
"Let's hope this gets fixed," the musician said.
UNESCO, the U.N. educational and cultural agency, added mariachi and 18 other demonstrations of intangible world heritage to its list during a meeting in Bali, Indonesia. The additions include Chinese shadow puppetry and French horseback riding, which is intangibly vital for the world because it "emphasizes harmonious relations between humans and horses," the agency said.
UNESCO also added 11 demonstrations of intangible world heritage that, in its phrasing, are in Need of Urgent Safeguarding. These include Yaokwa, the "Enawene Nawe people's ritual for the maintenance of social and cosmic order," in the Brazilian Amazon, and a "circular breathing" singing technique from Mongolia.
But was mariachi placed on the wrong list? Could it be considered in Need of Urgent Safeguarding?
You might think so after a night at Plaza Garibaldi, or any plaza, it might seem, where mariachis traditionally gather and busk for work. Mariachis everywhere are having a tough time.
In Los Angeles, home to the world's second largest population of Mexicans, mariachis are feeling pushed out of the traditional Mariachi Plaza east of downtown due to the looming threat of development and gentrification.
In Guadalajara, the historic birthplace of mariachi, the musicians at the Plaza de los Mariachis complain of a declining clientele due to security fears and a lack of support from the local government (link in Spanish).
The city is the capital of Jalisco state in western Mexico, and it means business when it often proclaims itself the "cradle" of Mexican culture. Tequila, the highly tangible alcoholic spirit, is also from there.
Here in Mexico City, Plaza Garibaldi north of downtown has been completely remodeled in the last two years, with a new plaza floor and a new tequila museum. Local mariachis, however, say the imposing museum structure is unwelcoming and "doesn't have a point." The remodeling also kept customers away for months at a time, and since the project was finished, they haven't quite come back.
That's how mariachi David Figueroa put it. The 66-year-old guitar player said the fixes to the plaza are largely cosmetic. He's played in Plaza Garibaldi, he said, since 1957. His workload suffered once the city started cleaning up the area, and it hasn't fully recovered since.
Attempts at integrating mariachis into established unions have also produced poor results for the musicians, Figueroa added.
"What we really need is a good restaurant with good food where you can go listen to good music," Figueroa said. "They don't help us at all."
Indeed, mariachi's addition to the UNESCO list will probably mean little to the musicians who gather at places like Garibaldi. (The full-band price for a song, 150 pesos or about $11, has not changed since the Sunday news of the UNESCO list, several musicians acknowledged.)
Here, drunken revelers show up to hire bands or trios for whatever song they might want, in just about any genre. Few make much of a distinction between the traditional mariachis -- with their form-fitting suits and wide-brimmed sombreros -- and newer additions to the plaza who play popular nortenos from Mexico's north or jarocho from the tropical eastern coast.
"Now they think they own the plaza!" Figueroa huffed. "But here, the tradition of Plaza Garibaldi has always been mariachi. It's not norteno, not jarocho, not trio, it's mariachi."
A song wafted over the chilly night air from nearby. The men shivered.
"Hopefully the patrimony [list] will mean people will respect mariachis more," said viola player Antonio Hernandez, 55. "We only charge what you're supposed to charge."
-- Daniel Hernandez
Photo: Mariachis perform in 2009. Credit: UNESCO