New York is a city in constant flux. It’s easy to forget that along with the luxury high rises and hipster cafés of the “new” New York, the past decades have seen the five boroughs enriched by new waves of immigrants from across West Africa, South Asia, and of course, México lindo. And perhaps nowhere is this demographic shift more evident than that emblematic non-place where New Yorkers of all races, classes and sexual orientations come together to solemnly stare at their phones while surreptitiously eye-flirting with the individuals seated across from them: the subway.
Yes, in recent years the MTA mariachi has become about as New York as a knish with mustard or a Coney Island conguero, sharing train cars with doo-wop quartets and broke cellists all the way from south Brooklyn to the upper Bronx. So it’s no surprise that The Atlantic‘s new curated series of short documentaries about subway musicians, “Rhythm in Motion,” has taken on one particularly New York breed of modern mariachi.
Flor de Toloache is an all-female mariachi conjunto founded by Mexicana-Dominicana violinist Mireya Ramos, who was inspired to form the group after having some negative experiences with more typical, male-dominated ensembles. Ramos explained to director Jenny Schweitzer that mariachi is traditionally a proudly macho cultural expression, and that she was often singled out by her fellow musicians for breaking the mold. But now, along with six other talented musicians playing everything from the guitarrón to the trumpet, she has created a space for New York women to proudly embrace their traditions without concern for old-fashioned machista social mores.
The three-plus minute mini-doc lasts just long enough to allow Ramos (and Schweitzer), to make her point about female empowerment and breaking down gender roles, while we are presented with a visual breakdown of the group’s preparation for a subterranean performance, giving a sense of Ramos’ Brooklyn Latino context and showing how the broader public reacts to Flor de Toloache’s defiant cultural statement.
Of course, Flor de Toloache takes their innovative interpretation of traditional mariachi even further than challenging gender roles, mixing their rasgueados with soulful, R&B-style harmonies and giving a new, 21st-century meaning to that timeless refrain: “Only in New York.”