Arts & Entertainment

Mariachi on New York subway doing what he can to brighten pandemic’s gloom

By Jorge Fuentelsaz

New York, Apr 22 (efe-epa).- The few people still using the New York subway travel in silence these days, wearing masks that cover mouth and nose and keeping their distance from fellow riders to avoid picking up – or spreading – the coronavirus. Only the announcements of station arrivals on the overhead loudspeakers and the squealing of the wheels break the monotony of the trip.

That is, until Nelson Vladimir Salmeron shows up in the cars, the mariachi on the No. 7 Line.

“Para bailar la bamba se necesita una poca de gracia, una poca de gracia y otra cosita, ¡Ay arriba y arriba!” sings Nelson, accompanying himself on the guitar in the lively song made famous by Richie Valens and changing the glum subway atmosphere where people were just thinking their own thoughts or focusing on their smartphones.

Someone raises their head at the music, looking askance at the man performing the Mexican classic amid the coronavirus gloom.

“I play in a mariachi group and on weekdays I spend time playing on the train and I like it,” said the young man born in El Salvador before adding that, with his father, “we also play like this – guitar and accordion – at private events, in restaurants and also here on the subway.”

Suffering from glaucoma, Nelson says that he is not shy about going out in public these days, although the pandemic has cut the tip money he receives from travelers in half, and he’s not afraid, despite the fact that “with the coronavirus, my dad doesn’t want to go out to play (music) with me because he prefers to be at home.”

Anyway, Nelson says he’s convinced that he overcame Covid-19 three weeks ago, after he went through a period of several days with a cough and a high fever.

“I got a bad cough and I felt flu-like and feverish, but it went away. But now my dad doesn’t want to get close to me, because he’s afraid that I’m going to pass the virus to him,” Nelson, 31, said smiling, although glaucoma has robbed him of sight in his right eye and has harmed the vision in his left, where he says he sees “black dots.”

The authorities in New York, where some 20,000 people have died from the coronavirus so far, on March 17 ordered that all non-essential activities cease until further notice. Public transport, though, has continued to operate albeit at a much reduced rate so that people who do venture out can get to their destinations, and Nelson is on hand to try and brighten their trips.

Nelson says that his father went blind at age 22 from glaucoma, and his mother has been blind since birth.

Besides singing and playing music, Nelson – along with his father – offers guitar, piano, accordion and trumpet classes, according to the business card he hands to anyone who’s interested. The young mariachi plays with a group called Los Rancheros at restaurants and private parties, mainly on Saturdays and Sundays.

And on weekdays, Nelson – who lives in New Jersey in a “very Latino neighborhood” – rides the cars on Line 7, New York City’s most “Latin American” route and where his music seems to be most appreciated.

He usually works for eight hours – from 8 am until 4 pm – Tuesday through Sunday, because on Monday, he says, people just don’t contribute money to him for his performances. But during these pandemic days, he plays for an hour less, from 10:20 am to 5:30 pm.

Nelson wears a beard and thin mustache and plays his guitar, eyes closed and standing up, stationing himself near one of the subway car’s doors.

When the train gets close to the next station, he stops playing and takes out a small paper sack from his pocket to collect the tip money the offloading riders offer him, although one masked man donated a subway ticket to him.

On a typical day of work since the coronavirus crisis erupted in New York, Nelson can earn about $80, which augments the state disability subsidy he receives.

“Have a nice day,” Nelson says to the man who gave him the subway ticket before adding in Spanish “que tenga un buen viaje” (Have a good trip) and continuing to hold out his sack, although nobody offers him any more change. Then, he gets off himself and waits for the next train, seeking to try his luck there, while the riders he leaves on board continue their journey amid the squealing wheels and loudspeaker announcements.EFE/EPA

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