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Mexico City street organ grinders celebrate inaugural festival

Organ grinders and accompanying drummer/dancers from Chile — who invited their Mexican counterparts to a similar festival in that country in 2022 — attended the festival as the inaugural guests of honor.

MEXICO CITY (CN) — After more than 130 years on Mexico City streets, the capital’s organ grinders have finally gotten the chance to be the stars of their very own festival.

The first-ever Organ Grinder Festival kicked off in downtown Mexico City Friday morning, featuring dozens of khaki-clad organilleros (organ grinders) from Mexico City and surrounding areas. 

“This first festival of organ grinders in our country … could not have been held in any venue other than the Historic Center of Mexico City, because here is where we have the highest concentration of them,” said Juan Manuel Oropeza Morales, head of the city department charged with administering the Historic Center. 

Speaking to a crowd of around 150, he called organ grinders “part of the cultural identity of the city” and highlighted the importance of “drawing attention to this trade [that is] so dignified, so emblematic of the Historic Center.” 

Oropeza also expressed the city governments support for the trade and his hope that the 2023 festival will be the first of many.

Organ grinder and founder of the Organilleros de México Culture Project Víctor Manuel Maya served as the inauguration’s emcee. He started his speech by honoring the generations that came before his and kept this tradition alive in Mexico. 

“In the case of the organ grinders, it’s a cousin, an uncle, a sister, father or mother,” he said. “This festival is for them.”

The street organ arrived in Mexico toward the end of the 19th century, when the dictator Porfirio Díaz entertained his European pretensions by bringing the practice over from France.

While he paid homage to the past, Maya also spoke of the organ grinder’s place in modern Mexico. 

“The organ grinding trade is a living practice, and as such, it will always have aspects it can improve and excel itself even more,” he said. “The saddest thing that could happen would be if these instruments that our grandparents listened to were to end up behind a display case in a museum.”

Nadia Iglesias Chavarría and Juan Manuel Arellano pose with their street organ at the first-ever Festival of Organ Grinders in Mexico City on May 19, 2023. (Cody Copeland/Courthouse News)

To avoid that end, Maya called for the federal Secretariat of Culture to label organ grinding an intangible cultural heritage. 

City official Oropeza said in an interview that he believes the festival will serve to show that Mexico’s organ grinders deserve the distinction. 

“We must work to recognize the role they play in our cultural heritage so that this guild is able to endure,” he said. 

The Secretariat of Culture did not respond to a request for comment. 

Smiling from ear to ear, organ grinders reveled in the attention, rather than the daily indifference of busy capital residents hurrying by on their way to work or school. 

“After more than a century [of this tradition in Mexico], we’re proud and happy to be here today,” said Nadia Iglesias Chavarría. The 43-year-old traditional dancer has accompanied the music of street organs for more than 18 years. 

She attended the inauguration with grinder Juan Manuel Arellano, 43, who has filled the streets with the toots and whistles of popular Revolution-era songs for 23 years. He said he hoped the festival will inspire a resurgence in interest in his craft. 

“I hope people will turn their heads and pay more attention to the organ grinders,” he said. “Little by little, this tradition has been fading out in Mexico, and we’re hoping it will be reborn with this festival.”

Organ grinders and drummers from Chile attended the festival as the guests of honor. With a drum strapped to their backs and a type of high hat operated by a tether connected to one foot, the drummers known as chinchineros (buskers) dance as they accompany the grinders.  

Joe Lizana (beneath statue) grinds his street organ as the drummer/dancers known as chinchineros accompany him. He and his cohort from Santiago, Chile, attended the festival as the guests of honor. (Cody Copeland/Courthouse News)

Joe Lizana, a 25-year-old organ grinder from Santiago, Chile, said he was excited and grateful to be invited to the festival. Chile invited Mexican organ grinders to a similar festival last year.

He also highlighted the importance of family and passing down the tradition. His great-grandfather was an innovator in the chinchín drum-dancing tradition in Chile, he said. 

“They called him Legs of Gold,” said Lizana. 

From children as young as ten to septuagenarian old timers, several generations were represented in the group from Chile. 

Mexico City resident Bernarndo Ramírez noted the prevalence of senior citizens in the crowd of attendees and hoped the festival would help popularize organ grinding among younger generations of Mexicans.  

“The organ grinders are deeply rooted in the city’s culture,” said Ramírez, 31. “It would have been cool if they had advertised this better to reach more young people.”

The festival will include an awards show on Saturday to recognize grinders with over 65 years of experience. It will conclude Sunday morning at 10 am with a parade running from the capital’s Monument to the Revolution to Plaza Tolsá, outside Mexico’s National Museum of Art.

Categories:Entertainment, International

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