On a normal afternoon in an apartment in the Del Valle neighborhood of Mexico City, open windows let in a cacophony: taco vendors calling out to passersby, low-flying aircraft, loudspeaker advertisements from fruit trucks and junk trucks and gas trucks. But since coronavirus made its way to this prosperous community, vendors have been replaced by quiet grocery delivery men, button-downed professionals are now working from their condos, and kids ride bikes in the driveways of gated privadas instead of at the neighborhood’s parks. All over Mexico City, red “Save Lives, Stay Home” posters have gone up on shop shutters, and a hush usually reserved for Sundays has come over the city.

Then, a slinky bolero rhythm starts up on the sidewalk below, and strains of “Bésame Mucho” float through the trees. Jorge Galindo is playing trumpet along to a backing track coming from a portable speaker. He aims the bell of his instrument up at the buildings, and people begin to appear at their windows and step out onto balconies to applaud and throw coins, whooping like they’re at a concert.

“I wasn’t going to come here today, but I let destiny guide me,” Galindo says, pausing to accept a coin from a couple in matching green fabric masks, walking their dog. “I came here when I was a boy, helping out my father. He played the trumpet, and I played the drums.” Galindo’s been playing music for tips on the streets of Mexico City for 20 years, though never quite like this. “It transports me, when I play. I live the music, feel it, and sometimes I even cry,” he says. “It’s wonderful to be a musician. If I didn’t do it from the heart, I’d be better off as a street sweeper or driving a truck.”

Ricardo Martinez Flores, father of Omar Martinez, is an organ grinder (left); Alfonso Garrido Reyna helps Flores collect tips from a man on a balcony (right).
Ricardo Martinez Flores, father of Omar Martinez, is an organ grinder (left); Alfonso Garrido Reyna helps Flores collect tips from a man on a balcony (right). Mallika Vora for Atlas Obscura

He’s one of many Mexico City musicians now serenading those who can afford to practice social distancing. Some days, for those apartment dwellers, staying at home is like flipping through radio stations: Two young men hammer out a tropical Coldplay cover on a marimba, a trombonist with only one working key plays “Perfume de Gardenias,” a flute-and-violin duet perform Tchaikovsky with choreographed dance moves—the violinist, David Sosa, wearing a mask but no gloves, the flautist, Dante Fernando, wearing gloves but no mask. “We hope these little songs we brought you have livened up your afternoon a bit,” they announce. “May this quarantine go by quickly!”

Francisco Lopez plays a drum with one hand as he drags a finger down a line of doorbell buzzers. He’s wearing two black baseball caps stacked on top of each other, one to shade his face from the sun, the other to catch coins or the occasional blue or pink bill that flutters down from a balcony like a jacaranda petal. Before the pandemic, he and trombone player Felix Peral played at parties and festivals with their 12-member banda group Triple R, but their gigs have all been canceled. Now they travel two hours on public transportation from the suburb of Chimalhuacán in the neighboring state of Estado de Mexico, a “nest of musicians” where Galindo also lives, to play music in the city’s upper-middle-class neighborhoods. At first the long days made Peral dizzy, and his back and legs hurt from walking. But now he says his mouth is used to playing trombone six days a week. His 12-year-old son Cruz Angel lags behind, beating a drum with the enthusiasm of any kid whose dad has asked him to help him out on a Saturday.

“He doesn’t like music,” laughs Peral. “He’s going to study. He wants to be something better, and I’ll support him as much as I can.”

Omar Martinez wears a thin blue mask with the emblematic khaki uniform and cap that identifies him as an organ grinder, just like his father, grandparents, and great-grandparents. He lives about an hour and a half away in Iztapalapa, a borough in the eastern part of the city that has become a hotspot for COVID-19 cases. “The father-in-law of one of my fellow organ grinders just died of it. They took him to the hospital at 10 p.m. and by 4 a.m. he had passed away,” says Martinez. “So now when we come here on the metro we wear gloves, masks—even double masks.” He shouts “Good morning!” up at the apartments, while his father cranks the wooden barrel organ they rent for 150 pesos ($6.50) per day. It warbles “Las Mañanitas,” the Mexican birthday song we’ve been told to sing while washing our hands.

A "Save lives. Stay home." poster in the La Condesa neighborhood of Mexico City on April 22, 2020.
A “Save lives. Stay home.” poster in the La Condesa neighborhood of Mexico City on April 22, 2020. PEDRO PARDO/AFP via Getty Images

Not all musicians are concerned about the risk of being out on the street. There is very little testing happening in the country, and many don’t personally know anyone who has gotten sick. “You hear so many voices that you don’t know which to believe and which not to,” says Martinez. Others cite conspiracy theories or simply deny that the virus exists. For those who can’t afford to stay home, this attitude might be an essential armor to keep going out day after day. “Personally, I don’t believe in the pandemic,” says Galindo, the trumpet player. “The bigger pandemic is hunger.”

“We’re not going out to take a walk in the park, we’re going out because it’s necessary,” says Roberto Yagüe. “We couldn’t take it anymore.” Yagüe belts ballads down the street as long as the battery on his speaker holds out. Earlier this year he spent his savings preparing to launch an app for a water-saving car wash service, but it has now completely stalled. He grew up with music, and even sang at weddings years ago. “But, unfortunately, here the truth is that to dedicate yourself to music is to die of hunger,” he says. Now it’s his last option.

Mexico City is the only place in the county that has an unemployment benefits program, but to qualify you have to be a resident of the city. You also have to have lost a formal job registered in the national social security system; musicians are part of the 56 percent of the Mexican labor force who work in the informal economy, according to El País. “Most of the people I know live from day to day,” says Galindo. “If they don’t find work one way, they look for it another way.”

Some musicians now out on the streets have always made their living on tips, setting up on the corners of downtown streets (now mostly empty) or playing the lunch hour circuit at restaurants (now takeout only). Others used to play at dance halls (shuttered) and private parties (postponed). With life on hold, all are making significantly less than they used to. But even the 200 to 300 pesos ($9 to $13) they estimate that they can make in a day playing music for people at home comes out looking better than the 2,641 pesos ($112) per month they would get if they could qualify for unemployment.

Tips, food, even healing crystals come down from windows and balconies.
Tips, food, even healing crystals come down from windows and balconies. Mallika Vora for Atlas Obscura

One of the organ grinders says he did get a prepaid card loaded with 400 pesos ( $17) from a government worker to buy food at Walmart, but most musicians say they haven’t received any part of the federal government’s economic stimulus plan, which has been criticized as too frugal and too late. “Nor are we going to receive it,” says Yagüe, the karaoke singer. “I don’t know where that money is going, to whose pockets.”

“Everything that we get is from the people,” says Peral, the trombone player. “The people support us; the government doesn’t.”

A man in a second-story apartment quietly slides his glass door closed. Not everyone welcomes the background music. Sometimes they yell out the window about interrupted conference calls and sleeping babies, or threaten to call the police. “Many people don’t view this as work, but it’s a job like any other,” says Martinez, the organ grinder. “They say, ‘Hey, shut up, I’m working!’ Well, so am I.”

But by the end of the day, the musicians’ backpacks are often heavy with donated food: oil, rice, sugar, packets of cookies, cans of tuna. Children with faces pressed between window bars toss out notes that say, “Thank you, you brightened our day.” A family on a rooftop chants, “Otra! Otra!” (“Encore! Encore!”) and there are three green flashes as someone drops apples, one by one, from a third-floor window. Neighbors bring out plastic plates of fresh fried empanadas or melting popsicles, and the offer of a moment’s rest on their stoop. Sosa and Fernando, the flute-and-violin duo, have received non-edible donations, too: healing crystals, amulets, a new violin bow for Sosa. An old man in a suit stops to ask the name of the song; his father used to sing him to sleep with it.

Galindo travels two hours to play in upscale neighborhoods.
Galindo travels two hours to play in upscale neighborhoods. Mallika Vora for Atlas Obscura

Before the shutdown began on March 20, Galindo, the trumpet player, says that people would walk right by him while he played. “But since the 20th, the people changed—they changed a lot. This has made them more sensitive, more understanding, more generous. Maybe because in all of this, we see death nearby,” he says. “If only there were another pandemic so that we would stay united like this.” Few are likely to agree, but as COVID-19 cases continue to mount in Mexico, it may take as much of this kind of optimism as desperation for musicians to keep putting themselves at risk day after day.

Until there are parties and weddings and sidewalk cafe lunches again, the musicians are staggering their routes so that they only come to this neighborhood, where the streets are named for philanthropists, every two weeks, hoping that their audiences won’t get bored and their generosity won’t wear out. “Maybe it doesn’t keep the world turning, but yes, music is essential,” insists Sosa, the violinist. “It makes us more human.”