Mariachi Jesus Méndez stands near Mexico City’s Plaza Garibaldi, hoping to stop passing drivers who might pay for a song.
Most nights, downtown Mexico City’s Garibaldi Plaza sounds like one big fiesta. From around 6 p.m. until well past midnight, dozens of mariachi musicians stroll past the downtown square’s sorbet-hued buildings and busy sidewalk cafes, wielding their guitars, violins, trumpets, and voices to sling ballads of love, betrayal, and revolution. Whether you’re a tourist or a chilango (Mexico City local), a few pesos can buy you a serenade.
But on a warm evening in early April, Garibaldi and its surrounding streets were quiet and all but empty, subdued by the government’s declaration of a health emergency on March 29 in response to COVID-19. Most restaurants were shuttered to everything but takeout, and nearby attractions like the Palacio de Bellas Arteswere cordoned off with yellow police tape. Public gatherings had been restricted to no more than 50 people, and non-essential businesses were ordered to close.
Yet dozens of Mexico City mariachis continued to show up in their wide sombreros, elaborately embroidered jackets, and metal-studded pants, toting violins or carrying outsize guitarróns—fat-bodied guitars used to pluck out bass lines. The folk musicians have gathered here since the 1920s, when the then-booming charro (cowboy) film industry popularized their look and sound. That night there were few customers, and only a handful of songs would be played. Some mariachis tried to flag down cars on surrounding streets; others sat waiting, anxiously checking their phones.
Ramon Alvarado Meléndez, 62, has played the contrabass (a cello-like instrument) here since 1990. “This used to be a national...