When Pasadena City College student Leandro Orozco was contacted to join as a bassist for Mariachi Arcoíris, the first LGBTQ mariachi band in the world, he was hesitant. “A straight 24-year-old man from a traditional Mexican family, joining a gay mariachi band?” he thought to himself. He would soon realize it would change his life for the better.
Orozco, an architecture major, comes from a family of the performing arts. Whether it be music or dancing, his family can master it. His parents met through dancing folklorico, a traditional Mexican dance, manifesting a passion for music and dance in the Orozco family. They sing, dance and play music at every family gathering.
However, Orozco was not always a musician. It wasn’t until Orozco enrolled in a mariachi ensemble class at Cal State LA when he really immersed himself in the culture. After taking the course and learning about mariachi music and the lifestyle, he became a freelance mariachi. Freelancers have their own charro or charra (mariachi suits), know all of the music, but don’t belong to a single group. Orozco regularly played in many different groups and met an abundance of people in the mariachi scene. It’s common for freelancers and bands to know everyone, even in LA county.
“People in the Azusa area know the people in LA and the Valley area,” he said.
Despite his growing network of musicians and mariachis, Orozco was ready to throw in the towel and felt that his freelance career wasn’t going anywhere. During this time, a friend of his recommended him to Mariachi Arcoíris since they were looking for a bassist. When the director got in contact with Orozco, he told him that the pay would be 10 dollars, if not more, than any other group in the community. The director made it clear that he had to be okay with gay and queer culture.
“I come from a very macho family,” Orozco said.
He had to sleep on it before making a final decision, which he now says, is one of the best decisions he has ever made. Mariachi Arcoíris director and creator Carlos Samaniego said Orozco was an example for future straight members. Samaniego created the group with the intention of being the first openly LGBTQ band; however, he didn’t feel like it would be right to exclude heterosexual people from joining the group. He is unapologetic about letting straight members know their place in the group before even joining.
“When I invite them into the group, I tell them what we do, what we are about, how we go about our music so they know exactly what they are getting themselves into,” Samaniego said.
Samaniego had prior conflicts with straight members who did not feel comfortable changing the lyrics of the songs to empower their LGBTQ audience.
“I told them that if you feel like you need to sing to the opposite sex, you have all the options in the world to do that, but you chose the one mariachi group that doesn’t do that,” he explained.
However, Orozco was more than happy to abide by these standards, which was a relief for Samaniego. Upon joining the band, Orozco realized that people are people and their sexual orientation or gender expression didn’t matter.
“Music doesn’t have a gender,” Orozco stated proudly.
“It has really been eye-opening, being in this group,” said Orozco. “They’re really great people, I would call them my family.”
His first gig with Mariachi Arcoíris was at the annual Mariachi Festival in Boyle Heights at Mariachi Plaza, a week or two after getting hired. Samaniego handed him the music and told him he had to learn it before the show, which forced Orozco to learn how to read music in a very short amount of time. This didn’t discourage him in the slightest.
Before joining the band, Orozco did not ever align himself with gay culture. He was intimidated by the exposure to a completely different culture. About a month after joining the band, Mariachi Arcoíris played at a gay club which happened to be cowboy themed that night.
“Coming from a ranch style home, all my family members are like cowboys,” he said laughing. “It was intense.”
It was a culture shock, but one that has taught him to not judge and open himself up to learning. His bandmates have made him more sensitive to gay and trans issues. Prior to being in the group, he usually brushed off any homophobic language from his friends, but now it irks him. He feels a responsibility to defend that community. Natalia Melendez, a core member of Mariachi Arcoíris, as well as the first transgender woman in all of mariachi, considers Orozco an ally.
“He’s a very talented young man with a big future ahead of him,” she said. “I respect him for being so secure with himself to be represented with the world’s first LGBTQ mariachi.”
The songs that Mariachi Arcoíris play for their fan base are traditional songs fixed to suit the audience. Orozco says that the songs they play are powerful and make people cry—it has an impact.
However, when Orozco is not with Mariachi Arcoíris or studying architecture, he is an employee at the EOP&S (Extended Opportunity Programs and Services) center, a father and a husband. Juggling several things at once makes it hard for him to see his daughter as much he’d like. With his daughter getting older and starting to understand why he has to leave, it makes her more sensitive to him having to leave for work, school or the band.
“A lot of sacrifices, but it has to be worth it,” Orozco said. “Sometimes to make myself feel better, I say, ‘she’s only two, she won’t remember any of this.’”
Mexican culture can be machista (exaggerated masculinity) and often times, more resistant to counterculture. Orozco was worried about how his traditional parents would perceive his affiliation to Mariachi Arcoíris. Despite being unsure of the idea at first, his family eventually warmed up to it, completely supporting Orozco and his successes. He knew that it would be a culture shock for them as well, but just like he was welcomed with open arms by the band, so was his family.
He understands how reputable Mariachi Arcoíris is and how disciplined he has to be in order to be a part of it. The stigma surrounding the gay mariachi band makes them strive to be that much better and bigger, Orozco said.
“We want to make sure these people who bad talk us can’t bad talk our music,” he said.