This Makeup Mariachi Musician Is Making Nonbinary Representation Happen
Streaks of purple and hot pink fan out like wings from Ayan Vasquez Lopez's bright brown eyes. There's a faint shimmer as the sun hits their face, almost like a spotlight, something Lopez, 25, is getting used to. For the past three years, they've been a member of Mariachi Arcoiris de Los Angeles, the world's first (and, as far as we can tell, only) openly LGBTQ mariachi group.
Founded in 2000 and reorganized in 2014, the 10-member group had been playing 20 to 30 shows a year — weddings, quinceaneras, concerts and mariachi festivals — before COVID-19. Today, Lopez isn't on stage, serenading audiences while singing to "Sabor a Mí." They're sitting on a bench at Jim Gilliam Park in Baldwin Hills, just up the hill from their childhood home in South Los Angeles, reflecting on the life-changing power of makeup.
"I feel like something about makeup is transformative. I guess it just captivates me. And I think, to this day, it's a transformative element for myself," Lopez says.
In January 2020, Lopez launched Makeup Mariachi, an Instagram account to document their two passions — makeup and music. For a couple of months, they used the account as a portfolio to showcase their looks and pictures of them performing in the band.
Then came March 2020. The COVID-19 pandemic forced Mariachi Arcoiris to cancel their slate of live performances. Lopez's gig singing in the choir at St. Bede's Episcopal Church in Mar Vista also dried up.
Broke and bored in the South L.A. apartment they share with their mother, father and two younger sisters, Lopez decided to fill their time by experimenting with makeup. In the past year, they've produced more than 20 makeup tutorials and videos, in English and Spanish, which they've posted on Instagram, TikTok and YouTube. Many of them explore Lopez's expansive sense of gender.
"To identify as genderfluid, it just means I go through different gender experiences daily, sometimes from day to day, from week to week. So I'll keep my beard on but I'll feminize my eyes or face with makeup," Lopez says.
They are not the first artist or performer pushing gender expression boundaries in the entertainment world. Eurovision 2014 winner Conchita Wurst famously performed in full drag with a floor-length gown, a wig and a beard. But Lopez exists as a queer, non-binary person of color who comes from a Latinx culture within a long history of machismo. And that means that wearing a full face of makeup while singing in a charro suit isn’t necessarily something that is often heard of.
We live in a society where femininity, especially for someone that looks like me, is shunned and frowned upon. It’s also shocking for some reason.
They’ve received attention online for their intersectional identity that spans across different communities in L.A.
During the pandemic, the Makeup Mariachi has gained a small following. They have, in the last six months, doubled their Instagram followers and turned to TikTok to do more makeup tutorials.
Lopez was also featured in influencer Blair Imani's Smarter in Seconds video, explaining the meaning of Pride Month, and they partnered with Skittles for a Pride campaign highlighting LGBTQ artists and creators.
For now, Lopez is fine with being an influencer but they want to do more than promote products and gain followers. They're aiming to broaden the largely white online space and increase visibility for queer Black and Brown creatives.
"I don't fit these norms of what an influencer may be," Lopez says. "Sure, there are queer makeup artists but they're also not Brown and nonbinary. You just have to stay true to what you offer and what you can do that no one else can."
Picking Up Makeup Brushes Early On
Lopez's parents, Genaro and Irene, sit at the dinner table in the South L.A. apartment where they have lived for more than 20 years. Family pictures hang on the beige walls and a ring light stands in the corner.
"This was where Ayan was raised," Genaro says in Spanish as he looks across the living room apartment. "This was where they would organize all their stuffed animals and would dance and put on performances."
Genaro and Irene left their Oaxacan hometown, and met in L.A. in the mid-1990s. They finally settled in South L.A. and raised three children. Ayan, the oldest, was curious about gender expression from an early age. When they began exploring makeup, Genaro and Irene weren't surprised.
"I used to sell Avon makeup products when Ayan was a toddler," Irene says. "I remember they would open up all my lipsticks and would paint themselves and draw with them. I wouldn't punish Ayan, but I would sit and cry because I was just trying to make some side money."
Lopez laughs as they recall their first experience with their mom's makeup. "I remember going into her makeup and picking out the most shimmery shimmer and lathering it all onto my fingers and seeing how much it shines," they say.
Ever since, they've been trying to perfect a shimmery eye. Watching YouTube tutorials in high school, Lopez learned how to contour, blend and layer colors. Halloween provided the perfect opportunity to test their skills as they created elaborate Pikachu or Día de los Muertos looks.
"Halloween during high school was my thing. I could do whatever I wanted. I even remember some of my classmates just being like, 'What's going on here?' But they were also interested," Lopez says.
During their freshman year of high school, Lopez began wearing low-key eyeshadow to school. By the time they hit college, they were wearing a full face of makeup. Irene remembers those days.
"They would ask me, 'What do you think of my makeup today?' And, of course, as a parent, you love your children, so I would just reply, 'It came out nice, my love, but are you sure those colors aren't too strong?' Ayan would respond, 'No, that's how I wanted it.' So I would just support them and encourage them to be themselves," Irene says.
Now, Lopez does Irene's makeup. "I receive so many compliments from my friends and family," she says.
Their style is precise, imaginative and dramatic, especially their use of color. They favor pinks and purples, often blending the two colors together. They're thinking about attending cosmetology school.
"I want to go to beauty school further down in the future. It's mainly because I want to be as hygienic and clean as possible and I don't really know the first thing about that," Lopez says.
Makeup isn't Lopez's only obsession. As the other half of their social media handles attest, they're also passionate about music.
Blending Makeup With Mariachi
Lopez began playing violin in the fifth grade and attended Hamilton High School's Academy of Music, playing in the orchestra. There, Lopez discovered mariachi by accident.
"I grew up listening to mariachi because of my parents but I, either, didn't care for it or I hated it. It was very much this self-loathing thing because I didn't want to be Brown growing up," Lopez says.
In the 10th grade, Lopez was placed in a mariachi class where they studied sheet music and played the violin. For the first time, they saw music as more than notes on a page. They saw it as art, and they saw themselves in the melodies, the lyrics and the culture. Lopez went on to play mariachi for the rest of high school.
After graduating, Lopez enrolled in the California Institute of the Arts, where they took a break from playing to focus on music theory and composition. Lopez didn't return to performing until after college, when they created Mariachi Oaxacali with some high school friends. The side-project rekindled their love for mariachi. Then, in the summer of 2018, Lopez saw Mariachi Arcoiris perform at a Pride event.
"I remember that with every song they played, I made a note of what song it was, who originally sang it and what style it was. Every single song they sang was just elevated for me," Lopez says.
They reached out to musical director Carlos Samaniego, and he invited them to attend a rehearsal.
"I had Ayan play at our rehearsal and after hearing them play the violin and sing, I knew they had to be in our group," Samaniego says.
"It all just happened really fast," Lopez says. "I played my first show with them, it was a folklorico show that we did on the stage, and from there, I guess the rest is history in the making."
Returning To The Stage
It's a Tuesday evening and Ayan is rehearsing with seven other violin players in Samaniego's Pico Rivera garage. They're working on a tricky passage from "Vamonos," where the violins are struggling to stay in the same key as the trumpets. After a year of no practice, the musicians are having trouble staying in sync but they finally nail it.
Dressed in a black crop top with teal green shorts and black Dr. Marten boots, Lopez has painted on their signature look: black winged eyes with a silver shimmer.
Mariachi Arcoiris just landed their largest gig ever. At the end of June, the group will play a Pride festival in Mexico City's Zócalo, its historic main square. It's a splashy re-entry as more places reopen and a historic moment for the group. For the first time, Mariachi Arcoiris will perform outside the United States — and this concert will be livestreamed online.
"We're the first LGBTQ+ mariachi in the world. Not even in Mexico do they have a mariachi like ours. That's why it's so important for us to be able to take Mariachi Arcoiris to Mexico. They don't have something like us in Mexico, which is where this music is from," Samaniego says.
The group has spent the last several weeks deep in rehearsals, perfecting their harmonies and the musical arrangements on tunes such as "A Mi Manera" and the mariachi classic, "Cucurrucucú Paloma."
Sameniego founded Mariachi Arcoiris in 2000 with fellow group member Natalia Melendez who still sings and plays violin in the group. He now refers to Lopez as his right hand, but Sameniego wasn't always so supportive. When Lopez started wearing a full face of makeup to live performances, he says he wasn't thrilled.
"I thought they were drawing too much attention to themselves," Samaniego says, "and I told them, 'You're not a soloist, you are a member of this mariachi.' But I soon realized that we preach visibility. When we see a gay couple holding hands, that's visibility. We need to normalize all our visibilities."
Watching Lopez's evolution into the Makeup Mariachi, both onstage and off, has been gratifying for Samaniego.
When Lopez first joined the group, they identified as a cisgender gay man.
"Back then I would have said, 'I'm a guy that does makeup.' But as I've met more nonbinary people and done more artistry on myself and wearing it out and proudly, I've embraced this inner femininity that has always been in me," Lopez says.
While most mariachi groups serenade women, Mariachi Arcoiris tends to serenade the queer men who attend their shows. Lopez does this by approaching gay men in the audience and singing love songs to them, often making them blush and laugh at the same time.
Being able to fully express their nonbinary identity has been a natural, if occasionally isolating, evolution for Lopez. Having someone to look up to at a younger age would've been nice, they say.
I wish this wasn't the case, but who else do you know that is a bearded mariachi musician with incredible makeup? Imagine being a kid in the early 2000s and looking for validation. That's what being able to express my nonbinary identity on stage means to me. It's natural and it's for those kids.
Lopez is looking forward to the Mexico trip but they're also anxious about it. As a toddler, they went to Oaxaca with their parents, but this will be their first time visiting Mexico City in more than two decades. Back home, Lopez's parents and siblings will be watching the livestreamed show.
Lopez, who typically paints on a shimmery winged eye to go along with the group's charro suit and rainbow tie, has a few ideas about their look for the performance.
"I'm going to do a rainbow eyeshadow and try to do a really artsy, inclusive queer flag, with the Brown and the Black and the trans flag, maybe throw a little intersex there," Lopez says.
After the group's two-hour rehearsal ends, Lopez sits on a bench near the sidewalk holding a violin case. The looming Mexico City gig, and all the paperwork it entails, feels more real now.
"I'm scared and excited but mostly scared," Lopez says. "It's Mexico and I don't know what I'm gonna face, like being me and wearing makeup. But I'm also excited to face it. It's literally like my 'Lizzie McGuire goes to Italy' movie. So I'm going to go as me."