The Threat of the Mariachi—Page 2
Story by Luke Armstrong, photos by Ray Conway

Guatemala mariachi

A plan is hatched. More money for more mariachi. Everyone agrees. The mariachi is pleased. We reach an agreement. There is not enough cash to pay them outright, but if they play another hour, I promise to meet them in front of the Church in San Felipe in the morning and pay them. They agree. The night rolls melodically on.

party crowd

When the pub crawl finally ends, everyone decides to head to my house for as much fun as we can have sans mariachi. Since I live outside of Antigua, I chase down a police pickup and ask them for a ride.

You see, once I bought a group of police officers pizza and now most of them give me and my friends rides. People would come up to me and say things like, "Hey Luke, do you remember me? Mary—from the Peace Corps? We got a ride home in an ambulance that one time?"

The land of possibilities.

Mariachi Loca in Action
After the pub crawling gringos and Guatemalans pile into the police cab, I find myself surrounded by the band. They demand to be paid. Do they not remember the conversation we had sixty minutes ago? Everything was agreed upon—9 a.m., tomorrow morning at the church in San Felipe. They all act like none of this took place.

"I don't have the money right now. That's why we agreed I would pay you tomorrow. Remember?"

They do not remember. But they do threaten to call the police. I look at them, then at the police car, packed with my party. "Look," I say, "I'm leaving. But I'll be at the church tomorrow morning to pay you, like we agreed upon. . ."

Before they can protest, we are speeding through side streets, headed to my house. The drive is filled with things that I am convinced could only happen in Guatemala. The highlights include people cracking beers in the cab of the police car while posing with the officers’ automatic weapons.

I'm in the backseat while the officer asks me what he needs to do to get an American girlfriend. "First," I say, "You need to learn to speak English or find one who speaks Spanish." He nods, having guessed as much.

Mad Mariachi Money
At my house everyone is on a post-mariachi wave, when I get a call from the owner of the Irish pub where the night started. Over the drone of the bar I just make out what he says, "Luke, there's a mariachi band here looking for you. They say you owe them money."

late night Guatemala

Though the image of the now drunk mariachi band roaming the streets looking for me brings me a dark sort of joy, this is Guatemala, land of possibilities. And it is possible that the band knows people with guns.

"That's ridiculous," I tell the bar owner. "I do, but not right now."

"Well, they're here and they really want that money."

"Can you do me a favor and just pay them the 200Q ($24) I owe them? I'll drop it by the bar tomorrow."

"I can do that."

With that I hang up the phone and forget all about the Mariachi band until my phone rings at 7:30 the next morning. It's Pedro—fearless leader of the Mariachi band. He's threatening me. He tells me he knows where I live and he's going to come find me with a group of guys until I pay him.

"Where do I live?" I ask.

This question throws him off guard. He returns to more pressing matters, "You owe us 200Q!"

"Didn't they pay you at the bar last night?" He says they didn't, but until I check on it, the band hasn't exactly given me reason to trust them. "Look," I say, "I'm going to call the bar owner you talked to last night. If he didn't pay you guys, I'll be exactly where I said I would. At the church, at 9, with your money."

I hang up and call the bar owner. He hadn't paid them. A few minutes later I see on my caller ID that the Mariachi band is calling. I hang up, set my alarm for 8:45am and go back to sleep.

When my alarm sounds I hop on my motorcycle and head to the San Felipe's church. Pedro is standing out front in a freshly pressed shirt, Khaki pants, and aviator sunglasses. He's smiling, revealing more gaps than teeth.

I hand him two crisp bills and he thanks me and warmly shakes me hand—like he's surprised that it was this easy. He lets me know that they would be happy to perform for us again. I consider bringing up the subject of him threatening me with physical violence over the phone less than two hours ago. But I end up leaving it unsaid. I don't see it changing either of our perspectives on life. Only a lifetime of getting screwed over, having promises broken, and being manipulated leads to this sort of behavior.

My definition of "The Land of Possibilities," is very different from the local definition.

After finishing degrees in philosophy and English in Chile, Luke Maguire Armstrong did what any financially oblivious recent grad would do: took out a large student loan and planned to backpack from Chile to Alaska. He ended up stopping in Guatemala, where he spent four years as director of the social services programs of the educational development organization Nuestros Ahijados. These efforts were featured on the 2010 ABC News Global Health Special: Be the Change, Save a Life. Follow his every move at

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Related articles:

Surviving Loco in Guatemala by Luke Armstrong
A Dollar and a Dime in Vietnam by Richard Sterling
Giant Kites Fighting for Heaven by Luke Armstrong
Ten Years to Tequila: On the Agave Trail in Mexico by Tim Leffel

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