Take El “A” Tren

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Listening to Gabriel Ramirez Lopez play music with his son and nephew on the subway, most passengers maintain their commuter faces. Here and there, though, the masks crack open a bit. One woman closes her bloodshot eyes. A lanky man hums along.

The range of people on New York City mass transit is very different from Lopez’ old audience. He used to perform for peasant commuters in Puebla, Mexico, just southeast of Mexico City. Until two years ago Lopez serenaded bus riders there, using the same small guitar, the same sombrero, the same Spanish to solicit donations.

Like many Mexicans in New York, Lopez left his country, his wife and most of his kids–he has seven–to look for work. He now shares a small apartment in the Bronx with his musician kinsmen and sends most of his earnings home to Mexico.

The trio pulls in $30 to $100 a day, working from 3 in the afternoon until 8 at night. They play four or five days a week, dodging cops and the occasional catcall of “Olé, Olé!” On weekends, they travel to the suburbs and work at parties for up to $200 an hour. Their clients are mostly Latinos, but Lopez notes with some bemusement that Asians are also big fans.

Their routine is typical of Mexican musical groups in the city, called conjuntos, whose numbers are growing. “The subway’s a pretty good market–an informal economy market,” says Robert Smith, a sociology professor at Barnard College who studies Mexican migration to New York. “You get all these guys with skills that the formal economy won’t accommodate. So they exploit a niche that exists, like all New Yorkers have a tendency to do.”

More and more Mexicans are flocking to the city. In 2000, they numbered 300,000, up from 40,000 in 1980, according to Smith. Two-thirds are from Puebla or the surrounding Mixteca region, an especially poor part of the country.

Lopez hopes to return to Puebla in a year, but his son Alquilino and nephew Gabriel want to stay here. That’s typical of younger-generation Mexican immigrants, according to Smith. “We want to marry American girls,” admits Alquilino, 26, with a sheepish smile.

Even though they sing almost exclusively love songs, there’s no time for girls. The trio spends mornings, its only free time, rehearsing and resting up for the jolting and sombrero-passing ahead.

“I’m doing what I love and what my family has always done,” says Lopez in Spanish. “But this job is not easy. We do it because it’s the only way we know to make a living. We’re musicians.”