Mexican Immigrant Plays Music for Subway Riders

Mexican immigrant accordion player "norteño" music on the R line in Manhattan. 2016 Marco Garcia
Mexican immigrant accordion player “norteño” music on the R line in Manhattan. 2016 Marco Garcia

As I made my way down towards the R train at Union Square to catch the subway, I heard the sounds of an accordion playing norteño music, or Mexican polka music, coming from deep inside the station.  The melodies quickly transported me back to my hometown of San Antonio filling me with memories of long ago.  Over the years I lived in New York, I’ve never heard Mexican music played in a subway station before so I rushed down the platform to find the musician playing these familiar sounds.

People have always entertained the crowds in the NYC subway as it doesn’t take much to set up in an open nook and play for the thousands passing through any station daily.  From  opera singers to blues guitarists, to a homeless guy banging on discarded trash bins, people have entertained in hopes of being discovered, or just to make a few bucks in tips.  In the past, many ethnic groups have also played their music as well.  And as Mexican immigrants are the fastest growing Hispanic population in the area, it doesn’t surprise me to hear norteño music now played in the stations.

The musical notes led to me to a middle-aged Hispanic male wearing a cowboy hat and blue jeans jacket.  He expertly played his Horner accordion and his melodies sang of a town far away, a family separated, a lover no longer waiting.  His fingers walked up and down the keyboard and his arms pulled and squeezed air through the bellows.  He played the song of immigrants…of people who left for something better and of sacrifice and sadness in the new land.  His tunes reminded me we are all immigrants as we have all left something behind in search of something else.  I left Texas for New York and then for Hawaii, leaving many people in the past and the memories from there.

I listened to him play for a few seconds but the train arrived suddenly.  So I quickly pulled out my camera and snapped off a few frames not realizing my outdoor setting on the camera couldn’t handle the darkness on the platform.  Just as the doors were closing, I dropped a few dollars into his tip jar and rode off towards Times Square.

The pictures ended up being “the last on the roll” as I was returning to Hawaii the next day.  As I sat on the train, I looked at the digital display on the back of my camera and lamented the wrong settings.  The image was blurry but it conveyed, like his music, the melody in the subway.  Underneath his hat, I saw a man, not unlike many of the people I grew up around in Texas.  He was a neighbor, a stranger I saw at the Lake, or the man playing in the mariachi band at Market Square.  He was familiar to me but could not find his face in Hawaii.  I can still hear his melody in my head and it tells me he was not playing his music just to make a few bucks, but to remind us of who we are.



A Japanese bullet hole remains in a glass windowpane in a Hickam AFB hangar.  The glass has never been changed…a reminder of the Japanese attack on Oahu in 1941.

As the world remembers 9/11 on the tenth anniversary, Hawaiian dreams drift me back towards Pearl Harbor, December 7th.  The surprise roar of motors buzzing over the harbor.  Torpedoes like hornet stingers piercing steel and flesh. Explosions rocking hillside homes around the base.  Smoke filling the skies.  A world changed.

Then silence.  The sound of fire and smoke all around.  Black, billowing clouds of burning oil, flesh and steel.

We were not in NYC when the planes attacked.  In Miami, vacationing of all things.  We argued about the dates.  i wanted to go the following week.  We thought nothing of it as South Beach beckoned us to its sandy embrace that mere mortal Tuesday.  We awoke in a cheap South Beach hotel.  Never figured what laid ahead in the world.  We thought a tourist plane slammed into WTC.  “Eh… fuhgeddaboutit!”  Swam in the green sea.  Rolled in the golden sand.  Though about the afternoon flight back to Newark.  The struggle back on the Path.  The struggle to get back home.  Never thinking much of what would remain.

Once we got back to Manhattan.  We heard silence.  Heard the smoke and ash around the Trade Center.  No honking.  No rudeness.  Not really anything.  Just shock.  What we once romantically looked upon from Exchange Place…was gone.

The hardest part of living in post destruction New York was the reminders all around.  I don’t really remember any pictures I have from that time.  I didn’t rather i tried not to take any.  I just didn’t.  I don’t know why. It just wasn’t in me.  I probably have film somewhere but its something I just don’t really think about or want to see.


Small reminders dot Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam.  If you look close enough you can see scars and wounds around the base.   In this one particular hangar, bullet holes glare like angry eyes from the past entwined in the wire-meshed windows of the hangar, it’s crooked eyelashes splitting from the brow.  Blue faced specters stuck in a Mondrianesque monotone malaise.

At first you don’t notice.  You wonder, why don’t they replace those busted windows.  Then you realize what those cracks in the glass are…

Pearl Harbor served as a lesson in history.  Why we didn’t learn enough is a question we should ask ourselves.  Yet past conspiracy theories suggest Roosevelt invited the attack to force the hands of the isolationist into war with Japan.  Many modern conspiracy theories point to a new world order after the Towers collapsed.  Some suggest they were demolished on purpose.  70 years after the attack on Pearl and we still don’t know what they knew then.

Will we ever know what they knew now?