For many subway riders, the appearance of a Mexican band during a commute home may often be an unwelcome one. The music is loud; the panhandling aggressive. It’s a disruption to the privacy of a subway ride. Still, it’s easy to forget that these musicians are oftentimes poor immigrants looking to make a few bucks and exploit their skills.
Over the weekend, The Times ran an excellent profile of these musicians — properly known as norteños for the type of music they play — and I found the piece a fascinating glimpse into a world often unknown by most of us. Kirk Semple spoke with a variety of these norteños to draw up a picture of the bands. He writes:
The Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s rules of conduct include an array of regulations that could, and often do, snag the bands, including a prohibition on playing musical instruments on subway trains. Fines, often $75 each, are a regular part of the job, several musicians said. So is detention, often involving an overnight stay in jail and sometimes a punishment of community service, if rarely anything more severe than that. For those in the United States illegally, civil violations like those are usually not enough to prompt a check of immigration status.
But even though $75 is a good day’s earnings on the subway, the musicians seem to regard these penalties as tolerable occupational hazards. “Our babies have to eat something; we have to eat something,” Mr. Tigre, 41, who is divorced and has three American-born children, said with a shrug. “If I had a steady job, I wouldn’t play in the train.”
The groups’ growth has paralleled the rising number of Mexicans in New York and the surging popularity of norteño music. A decade ago, the musicians say, there were only a few norteño bands plying the subway system. By the estimates of several players, there are now at least 15, though nobody is sure of the exact number because the groups are continually forming, changing members and dissolving. Their paths usually cross only underground, in quick, joking encounters that allow them to swap gossip and information about police sightings.
The article delves into the ins and outs of navigating the system as well. Some bands play only on certain segments. One, for instance, avoids police by sticking to the B or D trains north of 125th Sts., and most musicians say they try to avoid the mid-afternoon when school kids “heckle and yell, push and shove.” Some adults too grow hostile and abusive toward the musicians.
It might be annoying to find these musicians in a subway car, and it might be illegal as well. But it’s annoying and illegal with a little bit of character. I’d take the norteños over a crazy preacher any day of the week.