ON AVENIDA HIDALGO in the center of Mexico City, an organ grinder cranks her lonely tune. She is playing Sobre las Olas, her music a jumble of high-pitched notes. Her partner is working the sidewalk, cap extended, asking passersby to spare some change.
“Monedas, monedas,” she cries to the crowd.
Throngs of people stream past. Tourists stop to buy ice cream, to tip the string quartet that plays on the corner, to admire the silver-painted street performer standing still atop his box. Perspiration darkening her beige uniform, the organ grinder struggles to balance her heavy instrument. A guy with a skateboard gives 20 pesos — a sizeable tip — and stops to take a picture.
“You like the music?” I ask him. “Ay, no,” he replies. “But I’m writing a book about Mexico so I had to include these poor souls.”
That afternoon in the city’s centro histórico, I wander past the slanted, sinking cathedral whose first stones were placed by the Spanish in 1573; the velvet-draped cantina where Pancho Villa put a bullet in the ceiling; the Sanborns’ cafeteria, its homey exterior dressed in blue and white tile. The organilleros too feel like part of another era, cranking out Mexican classics from the 1930s. They are the black sheep of Mexican street music, their uniforms tattered and their instruments horribly out of tune.
Josefina and Gloria Morales work the streets outside the old post office in the centro, where they take turns playing the organ and collecting change. They are sisters, and have been working as organilleras since another sister turned them on to the profession ten years ago.
I stop to chat with Gloria and Josefina whenever I visit Bellas Artes, the gold-domed museum across from their regular spot. When I pass that day, Josefina is cranking out a love song, Amorcito Corazón. A fruit vendor walks by, his small cart laden with melon and jicama.
“When are we going to have a date?” he shouts to Gloria, grinning.
“Next time,” she laughs, her cheeks going pink. She continues her rounds, smiling sweetly at each person she asks for change.
The organ is like a labor-intensive music box; rather than play the music, the sisters crank out pre-engraved songs. Their instrument, in better shape than most, has a five-song repertoire — Gloria’s favorite is Las Mañanitas, Josefina’s La Vie en Rose — and they crank it steadily, without the harried, desperate air so common to their counterparts.
When I ask another organillero why he does this work, he says flatly, “It was the only thing I could find.” A moment later he answers his cell phone, “Yes, I know the rent is late…”
I ask the sisters to remember a particularly good day on the street. “Bueno…” Josefina thinks for a moment.
“One young man asked us to help him propose to his girlfriend. Oh, that was so nice. We started to play Serenata sin luna — her favorite song — just a second after she walked past. She turned to hear the music and then her boyfriend came out from the corner. He was shaking from head to toe, waiting with the ring.”
The sisters show up in their beige uniforms at eight each morning, and work until seven or eight every night. It’s hard work, the pay low and irregular. The instrument itself is heavy, weighing about 75 pounds. When the rain comes, Josefina tells me, she is obliged to kick up the organ’s peg leg, throw it on her back and make for shelter.
“Even one rainfall can damage the instrument forever,” she sighs. From the sound of things, and the amount of rain in DF — during the rainy season, nearly every day sees a steady downpour — it is likely all organs are somewhat damaged.
I ask what keeps them going. “We love it,” Gloria tells me with a shrug, her face wide and friendly. “This is what we do.” She hoists up the instrument, drawing back its red velvet cover to reveal a body of oak trimmed in black and gold. With a shy smile she runs her fingers across the exposed brass cylinders, carefully polished to a dull gleam.
The organs came to Mexico from Europe at the end of the 19th century — popular legend has it, as a gift from the German government to tyrannical leader Porfirio Díaz, lover of all things European.
They were not always so despised. On Sunday afternoons in the 1890s, the organilleros cranked out song after song to the sound of passing streetcars on the tree-lined Zócalo. When a wave of musical nationalism swept the country around the time of the Revolution, they added classic Mexican melodies to their waltzes and polkas. Many were accompanied by a small monkey in matching uniform, who hopped about performing tricks and collecting funds. In a time before radio, families gathered around to request popular songs like Cielito Lindo, dropping coins into the monkey’s tiny cap.
Yet, due to many years of poor maintenance — today, their creaky notes call to mind an eerie circus more than a pleasant weekend afternoon — each generation of chilangos has been less taken with the organ players. I’ve heard them called “non-citizens” and “the worst of the worst.”
Even when in tune, their tinkling melodies can be grating and repetitive — Dickens complained that he couldn’t write for 30 minutes without being interrupted by the excruciating noises of organs on the street below. Out of tune they sound like remixed shrieking, an acoustic experiment gone badly awry. In Mexico City, organ grinders were expelled from the centro during a 1950s effort to rid the area of all street vendors. Many were arrested and fined, their instruments confiscated.
With efforts to restore the city center, the organilleros were welcomed back to the streets as a symbol of old Mexico. This was likely geared toward tourists, yet few tourists give to the organilleros.
“Those who support us are mostly older Mexicans,” says Gloria. “They’re willing to pay for a piece of the past.”
“Young people don’t like our music,” Josefina adds matter-of-factly. “They don’t recognize the songs. And they’re used to email and video games. They lack the patience to stand on the street.”
Yet it doesn’t bode well for the organilleros that the bulk of their donations come from DF’s last living generation — nor is it the best sign that their only supporters may well be hard of hearing.
I once asked a local instrument repairman what he thought of the instruments.
“As a music lover, it’s painful,” he confessed. “I haven’t heard a well-tuned organ in years.” I asked if he knew how to repair or tune them himself.
“I probably could,” he said thoughtfully, “but the organilleros never bring them in.”
It’s not hard to imagine why. On a very good day, between the two of them Gloria and Josefina might take home 240 pesos, about 18 dollars. Yet the cost of renting their organ is 150 pesos ($11) daily. “Almost half of what we make,” Gloria tells me ruefully. More than half, I think to myself.
“Sometimes we have butter on the table,” she says, “other days it’s puro frijol.” Nothing but beans.
The process of tuning an organ is time-consuming and expensive — to tune a single instrument takes about three hours, to engrave a new song about three days. To repair a damaged organ is even more complex and costly — the process could take up to two weeks, at a cost of nearly 300 dollars. As recently as the ‘90s, the organilleros pooled their resources to bring a specialist from Chile once a year. Yet the cost of his long journey made this option unsustainable.
The sisters rent their organ from an old man in Tepito whose family owns five. Sometimes they bring him pan dulce, they tell me, just to keep things friendly.
“Pero es un negocio,” Gloria says. It’s a business. “If we don’t show up with cash in the morning, we don’t play.”
On a chilly morning in October, I visit Victor Inzúa at his office on the labyrinthine campus of the UNAM, Mexico’s top public university. Inzúa, a researcher on Mexican popular culture, is perhaps the organilleros’ greatest advocate. Over the course of a year and a half, he conducted an intensive study on their predicament and published a book entitled The Life of the Organilleros, A Dying Tradition in 1981.
Eager to chat, Inzúa waves me in from the hall. With his shiny bomber jacket and gelled bouffant hairstyle, he calls to mind a smaller, aging version of the Fonz.
Inzúa is widely recognized as a local expert — he has been honored on national TV and radio — yet sitting in his cramped, dimly lit office, I can’t help but think of how the dismal situation of the organilleros seems to reflect his own. When I mention I’ve had trouble finding his book, Inzúa tells me that not even he owns a copy (I finally track one down at a dusty, forgotten bookstore in the centro).
Although his research on the organilleros was commissioned by the wife of then president José López Portillo, Inzúa’s pleas to preserve the instruments have amounted to little. He campaigned for funding to make recordings, train local craftsmen to tune the organs, and create a small museum to educate the public and preserve rare instruments.
“What came of all that?” I ask.
“A festival in Coyoacán,” he scoffs. “For three days, I can’t remember how many years ago.” Even Inzúa admits that a festival of this kind — imagine 50 out of tune organs cranking in the same small square — might not have been the best way to garner support for his cause.
Inzúa describes the problem as a vicious cycle. As the organs become even more out of tune, they are more loathed by the general population, and people are less likely to support efforts to tune or preserve them.
“Believe me, no one even remembers how they’re supposed to sound,” he says. “A well-tuned organ gives the listener a totally different experience. One has nothing to do with the other: No tiene nada que ver.”
That night, at a dark concert venue across town, chilangos sip tequila as they move to music by the Mexican Institute of Sound. The band blends older music with electronica, dub, even spoken word — at the moment they’re sampling the romantic ballad La Gloria Eres Tú from 1950s trio Los Tres Diamantes. A DJ in a bowler hat claps his hands on stage, and Condesa hipsters in skinny jeans nod their heads to the beat. The music fades to Belludita, the band’s take on a cumbia hit from the ‘70s, and the crowd fans out to dance. Beside me a pink-haired teenager holds her boyfriend at arm’s length, twisting her hips toward him and away. As the night goes on, the music spins between ballads, danzón, and mariachi, new twists on classic melodies igniting the young crowd.
Despite their place in Mexico’s collective music memory, the organilleros are abandoned in this fusion of old and new. They compete in a losing battle with modernity, technology beginning to eliminate them even from their own narrow market.
“It’s the worst insult yet,” Gloria confides when I see her next. “Organillos piratas.” The pirate organ — its graceful outer shell just a façade for a boombox beneath.
“Completely unfair competition,” adds Josefina. “They weigh nothing, contain hundreds of songs, and you can crank them all day without even feeling it.” The sound isn’t the same, they tell me — guiltily, I think, it might be better — but they worry the piratas will soon fill the streets.
As I walk along Calle Donceles on my last afternoon in the city, a man tries to sell me cheese from a bag on the street. “Queso,” he whispers like a dirty word. “Queso.” A woman in traditional dress sits on the ground, her legs extended over a blanket displaying tiny dinosaur figures for sale. Buses rumble by along the uneven pavement and mariachis, in all their silver-studded glory, wave their horns toward nearby Plaza Garibaldi, where they play.
To many of Mexico City’s older residents, this beloved chaos would not be complete without the organilleros.
“I always give to the organilleros,” Miriam, a family friend, tells me over brunch. “I’ll run down from the apartment just to give them ten pesos.” I ask her why.
“Well…they need it to live!” she replies. “Without our support they’ll disappear. They’re disappearing already.”
When I say goodbye to Josefina and Gloria, the sisters embrace me warmly, making me promise to visit again. Gloria crosses the street to collect change, and Josefina hoists up their organ and begins a new song.
A few meters away, a crowd is gathering around a man who performs strange dances before a blasting boombox. The thud of live drumming sounds from around the corner. Josefina’s music grows faint just steps from our goodbye. Within less than a block, I can’t hear it at all.