Sunday, August 5, 2012

Tacos and tunes

Yesterday was the Second Annual Los Angeles Taco Festival in Boyle Heights.

Modest as festivals go, it isn't complicated. It's all about eating tacos, hanging out, and listening to music in Mariachi Plaza.

We weren't sure about parking so we parked downtown and took the Gold Line. We emerged from the Mariachi Plaza station right into the midst of the throng. A couple of taco trucks, a row of pop-up canopies, and the bandstand. Rows of white umbrellas provided shade from the hot afternoon sun, and stacks of lightweight plastic folding chairs were available for people to carry into shady nooks as they wished.

The Mariachi Plaza station is one of the few underground stations on the Gold Line. You rise up out of the station on an escalator shaded by an overarching fan-shaped roof, pierced with diamond-shaped panels of colored glass. On a sunny day like yesterday, the play of colors on the stairs and on your body as you pass through them is beautiful.

There are bronze panels and figures and insets in the pavement, all part of the public art included by Metro, The artist is Alejandro de la Loza, and the works were inspired by a Mexican song titled, "El Nino Perdido," or "the lost child."  It's too bad Metro's website doesn't provide much more information about it, because the works look intriguing and full of hidden meaning.

The backside of the escalator shelter is a bandstand, also shaded with a fan-shaped colorful roof. Here, local bands performed to a square filled with people and little pop-up tents selling trinkets and arts and crafts, or sheltering community service groups providing information.

Following a youth rap group, a seasoned mariachi group performed, the lively music inspiring children to dance in the splashes of colored light and play with hula hoops.

Mariachi Plaza is a traditional gathering place for mariachi groups, and throughout the square you could see musicians, perhaps waiting to go onstage, dressed in their traditional traje de charro costumes - short jackets and fitted dark pants, embroidered and ornamented with rows of silver buttons down the side seams.

Most of the musicians wear black, but this gentleman stood out from the rest in his green attire, with elaborate gold embroidery.

We lined up at the booth for El Tepeyac for a plate of tacos - two with carne asada and one with nopales. The green salsa on the meat was fiery!

We went back for a helping of tacos dorados - deep fried tacos - at Yeyas.

One potato, one chicken and one with shrimp. Doused with crema, shredded lettuce, cotijo cheese and a cup of hot red salsa, they were delicious.

Satisfied, we wandered toward to western side of the plaza, where it was quieter. An ornate stone bandstand, donated by the City of Jalisco in the 1990s, presides over the space.

Small buildings cluster at the edges of the square, painted with murals showing mariachi musicians in historic costumes. Here the musicians traditionally linger, waiting for customers to hire them to play for family celebrations or events.

A group of players hang out under the umbrellas in front of the Santa Cecilia Restaurant - Cecilia is the patron saint of music. It doesn't look like much of a place, but its Yelp reviews are consistent raves. Too bad we didn't try something - we'll come back.

Across the street from the plaza is the Boyle Hotel. This 19th century hotel provided cheap rooms for musicians, traveling a circuit from Jalisco to LA, Chicago and the East Coast. They stayed near the Plaza, because it meant work - if a band was hired and needed, say, an extra vihuela or gitarron player, they could always find someone in the hotel. Over the decades the hotel fell into disrepair, and the tenants have endured poor living conditions and landlord harassment. Now a $25 million dollar renovation is complete, and it's expected to provide affordable housing and a mariachi arts center.

A new addition to the Plaza is Libros Schmibros, which moved here from a previous location on First Street.

The bookstore is crammed floor to ceiling with used books. You can buy them at great prices, or the store functions as a lending library - a great asset in a low-income neighborhood. They are building a strong selection of books about California and its history.

Also in the western part of the plaza, by St. Cecilia's restaurant, is a statue of the early 20th century Mexican mariachi singer Lucha Reyes. She was celebrated as a theatrical soprano as a young woman, but after a bout with laryngitis, she began to sing rancheras with mariachi bands. She died at the age of 38, troubled and addicted - perhaps a testament to how hard life is for traveling musicians.

Detail, mural at Libros Schmibros
 It's nice to imagine her statue overlooking this new, renovated plaza with its vivid life, its thriving mariachi scene, its jeweled colors, its dancing children.


ifthethunderdontgetya™³²®© said...

Looks like delicious fun!

Big Bad Bald Bastard said...

Sure looks like a good time. I love the colorful murals on the buildings.

Tiffany said...

Thinking of you this week! Thanks for opening my eyes to what a fasinating place LA really is. Your writing has really changed my whole opinion about the city and surrounding area.

Claudia from Idiot's Kitchen said...

I love that colored glass canopy and bandstand. What a great use of funding to improve a city neighborhood. And of course, I have taco envy too.

Karen (formerly kcinnova) said...

"Eating tacos, hanging out, and listening to music in Mariachi Plaza" is definitely something I could enjoy. Add in the Mariachi Plaza station colored canopied roof and a bandstand, and it is even worth going out in this heat!
As Tiffany says above, your posts about fascinating places in Los Angeles are changing my opinion of the city itself. I look forward to coming there in September!

Chantay said...

This fan-shaped roof can be a tourist attraction in Mariachi Plaza. Its diamond-shaped panels of colored glass add vibrancy to the place. The reflection of colors at the stairs and on your body as you pass through them is really awesome. Surely, even kids will love it. A simple colorful roof like this can make this place spectacular! It gives a festive feeling to every visitor of this place.

Chantay Smithingell