Anyone who has visited Mexico City’s Historic District knows the sound of the street organs, or “organillos” as they are known in Spanish. Some love them and others hate them, but no one can deny that the hand-operated machines that whistle classic melodies form a vital part of central Mexico City’s urban environment.
Camilo Juárez has been an organ grinder for about four years, and he likes the opportunity to contribute to the city’s ambience, even if he doesn’t always make a lot of money.
“I enjoy my it because my job is to entertain and bring people music,” he told The News while taking a break from grinding on Avenida 16 de Septiembre, a few blocks from the Zócalo. “It’s mostly the older people who seem to appreciate it, who give money. The younger people less so.”
Juárez, a native of Oaxaca City, got into organ grinding through a recommendation from a friend, but he said that most organ grinders he knows entered the trade through relatives. The organ grinders are organized into a union, the Mexico Organ Grinders Association.
“The association figures out which corners we should stand on so we’re not all in the same place, and they make sure our uniforms are clean,” said Juárez. “But we need to pay for the organs and get them repaired ourselves.”
Street organs were once popular in major cities all around the world, but today, Mexico City is one of the few places where they are still common.
The organs themselves mostly come from Germany, where they were built until 1927, and some are still built in small workshops in Guatemala and Chile. The machines’ rarity and age makes getting repairs and tuning difficult, as replacement parts and qualified technicians get harder and harder to find. Simultaneously, the organ grinders are making less and less money. It’s a situation that makes it seem like street organs will soon be a thing of the past.
But people have been using that logic to predict their demise for years. In 2003, La Crónica de Hoy reported that the organs were “disappearing” and that “their situation gets worse every day.” More than a decade later, the unique musical instruments are still around, resisting what some many say is an inevitable march towards disappearance.
In fact, organ grinders have even been multiplying in the past decade; a union leader told the New York Times in September that there are currently around 500 active street organs in Mexico City, a significant rise from 10 years ago in 2006, when La Jornada reported around 200 active organs. Although the rise in organ grinding may have more to do with the scarcity of other job opportunities than the profitability of the trade, whatever the cause, it’s clear that organ grinders won’t be going anywhere in the near future.
As for Camilo Juárez, there’s only one thing that would make him give up the trade:
“If people stop giving me money.”