As he has almost every day for the past 20 years, Arturo Rubalcaba walks about a block from his apartment in Boyle Heights to Mariachi Plaza. It’s mostly empty except for a few mariachis wearing black suits embellished with silver buttons and white embroidery. Rubalcaba sits and waits for clients to arrive.
“My instrument that I play is the violin,” says Rubalcaba. “The majority of the music we play is to make people happy.”
Rubalcaba is a mariachi. He and the other musicians come to Mariachi Plaza to book jobs like quinceneras, birthdays, funerals and weddings. This is a tradition that dates back to the 1930s, but the jump in housing prices is putting that tradition at risk.
Last December, a real estate developer named Frank “BJ” Turner bought the building where Rubalcaba and eight other mariachis live. Rubalcaba’s monthly rent went from $1175 to $1825, which he says is “too much. It’s an increase that I can’t pay.”
Living close to the plaza is crucial to the musician’s livelihood. Most gigs are booked on the spot for events that start in a couple of hours. A leader from the group gets the gig and then gathers up the band to go to play – so if a mariachi lives far away, the gig will go to another group. Rubalcaba relies on hiring other musicians living in the area, who are facing similar housing pressures. For him, moving means losing his job.
The mariachis are just the latest longterm tenants in Boyle Heights worried about being displaced from their neighborhood due to the spike in housing prices in the neighborhood. Developers are buying up buildings and marketing to new, higher paying renters.
Crescent Canyon Management, which is now managing the building, has rebranded it as “Mariachi Crossing.” The company recently promoted a new remodeled one-bedroom unit there for $1650. The apartment is staged with sleek, modern furniture, and the listing has sparked an online conversation about cultural appropriation and gentrification in the neighborhood.
Turner has not returned calls for this story. In a statement, Crescent Canyon Management said it’s met with the residents and is working to manage the property in a thoughtful and lawful way. Rubalcaba warns this isn’t enough.
“I think if this continues, in five to 10 years we won’t have mariachis here in Boyle Heights,” he says.