MEXICO CITY, MEXICO — Notes from the violin and transverse flute gradually drown out the traffic noise, delighting pedestrians on this busy street in Centro Histórico, Mexico City’s historic downtown area.
“I play music with love so that people can feel some calm and peace,” says Gustavo Santana, the flute player. He holds his instrument sideways, standing near the violinist on the sidewalk beside a large storefront. People sit in front of the duo to listen and applaud at the end of each melody. Others stop to take photos and videos. Some slow the rhythm of their steps near the musicians for only a moment.
Thirteen years ago, Santana worked nearby as a restaurant musician. He says one day he got mad at his employer and quit. To earn a living, he took out his flute and began to perform in public for tips.
“People on the street valued my work more and it went better for me than what they would pay me at the restaurant,” Santana says.
But life isn’t easy for street musicians in Mexico City.
In 2016, two female cellists playing in the historic downtown were detained by police and charged with obstructing a public thoroughfare. The arrest prompted local artists and musicians to organize a group called the Collective of Urban Musicians of the Historic Center. The group seeks legal recognition and better treatment from police.
“We seek recognition for urban music, and with that is the recognition of music as a right and not a service,” says Valentina Morales, a representative for the group.
She says street musicians are often harassed by Mexico City Police. Even though the city government discourages the arrest of street musicians, they still do not have legal protections.
That’s why the group is advocating for legal recognition of seven places along a main street downtown for regular live performances.
These unofficial “Musical Stations,” as the collective calls them, are already being used. Performers coordinate appearances via WhatsApp. They commit to keeping the outdoor spaces clean and keeping the music’s volume between 50 and 70 decibels, as recommended by the city’s Ministry of Risk Management and Civil Protection. They’re mindful to not block the entrances of businesses.
But the Musical Stations are still not officially permitted. Just this March, police officers stopped some performances.
“We’re looking for them to authorize the Musical Stations and for there to be a permit for the musicians,” says Morales.
Félix Arturo Medina, undersecretary for the Ministry of Government, supports the presence of musicians. He says the city will not order police to remove them as long as they keep to the seven agreed upon Musical Stations and stick to healthy sound levels.
“We are working with them in order to see in what way we can coexist with the public space,” Medina says. “[The urban musicians] make the public space more livable, more enjoyable. It’s really cool to go around the public space and see how the people get excited and share the music.”
But under current regulations, he says, the city can only authorize the use of public space for a limited time. Longer-term permits can only be given to a commercial or service activity, like shining shoes or selling newspapers.
“In order for their work to be recognized and respected, it is necessary to create a law or reform an existing one,” Medina says.
In 2017, a new city law seemed to be on the horizon.
The collective expected Mexico City legislators to offer legal rights to street musicians after a roundtable with officials, Morales says. But when the September 19th earthquake struck Mexico City a week later, other policies and laws took priority.
While they have not found a strong advocate in government yet, the work of the Collective of Urban Musicians of the Historic Center is about more than a group of people who love to perform, Morales says. They even approached the federal government and representatives of the Culture Commission, framing the need to protect street musicians as a way to preserve a musical tradition that dates back more than 600 years.
“There have always been musicians downtown – since this was Tenochtitlan – but there has never been a recognition of the role of music,” Morales says. “We want to do this as a gift to the city.”
It’s a sentiment echoed by Uriel Tapia, a multi-instrumentalist who joined the collective six months ago.
“We are here to give them the most beautiful thing in the world, the universal language that is music.”
Rishi Khalsa, GPJ, translated this article from Spanish.
Editor’s note: This story was originally published on Jan. 1, 2020.