How Oaxaca’s Romeros rebuild their love of music

Written by Jaoa Paiva, CNN Mexico City, Mexico

He’s the Swiss mechanic with a heart of gold.

Magda Nunes Tzuyu and her family know Fernando Martinez as “Mr. Fix-It” for these seemingly nonstop repairs to Mexico City’s beloved accordions.

Many simply call them “Romeros.” Others complain that the maroon instruments need to be “revamped.” To solve both issues, Mr. Fix-It has traveled the city repairing what most believe is a life-sustaining instrument — by hand.

“I can imagine that each person has a perfectly beautiful instrument that they know needs repair,” says Mata Tzuyu, who has been washing, tuning and repairing the accordions for her whole life.

“Their joy and passion is the same as mine, but you don’t hear that same voice,” Mata Tzuyu says, her voice soft but heartfelt.

A couple recently came for repairs. The man, 62, looked so old and broken-looking that Mata Tzuyu’s mother asked if he needed help. Mata Tzuyu realized he would probably need her services, so she drove the two hours to get him and his guitar from his apartment in the north to a building in the Central District.

The two take turns after 6 p.m. every day, arriving at his place of residence at 6:30.

Oaxaca’s guitar revival

Mexico City’s Romeros are unique because of the colorful figurines associated with them. They were made in the Oaxaca region on Mexico’s southern Pacific coast by indigenous people who traced their history back 5,000 years.

As the treaty with the United States was signed in 1848, many lost their homes, and many settled in the central and south districts of Mexico City. When war broke out again in 1910, many fled the capital city in order to escape those death-defying marches into the fields.

In the course of many migrations, many Romeros are wandering the streets of Oaxaca City, singing and hoping to make a living. Despite his multiple musical instruments, Luis Compean had not been able to make any money from his one beloved guitar.

After many years of struggling with his guitar, Compean contacted Mata Tzuyu to get it fixed by hand. The repairs could not have been done any better. Mata Tzuyu’s father, who lives across the street from Compean, then joined the group as an additional instrument grinder.

“The guitars are a way to share love and enthusiasm,” Mata Tzuyu says.

While Mata Tzuyu says her husband has never been on the streets, he and her younger sister were playing instruments on the streets long before their marriage.

Now both have a job at an accordion repair center, and the family regularly has appointments to repair Romeros, which will typically take four or five hours.

In the evening, the Manzanares start their work — washing, tuning and curing the instruments. The first song they will play is a popular Mexican beach tune.

In an interview with El Universal, Martinez described the Music de Concierto program, a small empire with a strong devotion to Mexican folk music. Martinez, his father and his father’s wife have been in charge of the Music de Concierto project for over 15 years.

The family program consists of four parts. The program hands out instrument repair kits to the roughly 3,000 Romeros who live in the five Oaxaca districts of New Marti, Moises Aca, Guerrero Hidalgo, Segundo Jara and Tzotzil. The kits are free and are kept in a warehouse with roughly 40,000 instruments, which are repaired and serviced by the project’s team.

Initially, half of the instruments are repaired by the same team, and the other half are hired for an hourly wage. On a daily basis, there are 12 to 15 employees — 16-17 year-olds who at one point suffered devastating violence with the drug cartels who once lorded over them — making repairs and getting busy with this comprehensive program.

For over 50 years, Mexico City has been at the center of Mexican culture.

“The city is teeming with human beings and is a space of encounter. Mexican traditions are interwoven and offered up to the world,” Mata Tzuyu says.

Leave a Comment