Bandstand of the Americas

Half a century after a son of Mexican immigrants founded local rock, a new generation of Latinos listens for its own song

There is no contemporary equivalent to Augie Garcia, Minnesota's first rock 'n' roll icon. Perhaps there never will be one. He was, after all, born and raised in a lost neighborhood--the West Side Flats of pre-war St. Paul, where the mills of the Riverview Industrial Park now stand. The son of Mexican immigrants, he grew up among second-generation Lebanese, Irish, French, and German Americans. Many of his friends were Jewish, black, or Chicano, though he once said he never made such distinctions.

This was the ethnic triumvirate behind local rock 'n' roll, a makeup reflected in the mourning crowd at his funeral one drizzly Monday last August. When the community around Concord Avenue and Robert Street--what's left of the old West Side--bid Garcia farewell in its own Our Lady of Guadalupe Church, the occasion marked something like the end of an era in local Mexican-American music. It was a farewell to mainstream American pop as an animating force in the community Garcia loved.

Businessman Selwin Ortega plans to buy KSMM-AM Radio (1530)
Diana Watters
Businessman Selwin Ortega plans to buy KSMM-AM Radio (1530)

In fact, Mexican-American music in Minnesota has never been more Mexican than today, and Garcia's hep-cat milieu seems lost to nostalgia. By the time the barrel-chested guitarist returned from the Korean War, he had already learned Mexican songs from his uncle Frank and played in a Caribbean music band, Los Boleros. But it was the new, raw sound of New Orleans that spurred him to form a rhythm-and-blues quintet, enlisting Prince's uncle Maurice Turner on bass and Jimmy Jam's father Cornbread Harris on keys. Donning his trademark Bermuda shorts and desert boots, Garcia sold out Mendota's tiny River Road Club every weekend for years. He opened for Elvis at the St. Paul Auditorium and cut the state's first rock 'n' roll record, "Hi Yo Silver," in 1955. In effect, Garcia pulled up his Mexican roots to plant distinctly American ones.

"I liked a little Mexican music," he told me in 1998, his voice warm yet raspy from fighting throat cancer. "But more the Spanish, as opposed to the Tex-Mex that you hear with the accordions. I didn't like that shit. What I loved was blues."

 

Nearly half a century after Augie Garcia's heyday, a group of teenage Latinas wearing more tattoos than clothes is shimmying in the sun to the trebly canciones of...an accordion band. The dancers are among the thousands gathered on a block off Concord Avenue, just a minute or two from Garcia's beloved Guadalupe Church. It is May 5, 2000, the beginning of the three-day, 18th annual (though some claim 19th annual--the history is murky) West Side Cinco de Mayo festival. The international "Fifth of May" celebration commemorates that proud 1862 day when an ill-equipped Mexican army of mostly mestizos and Zapotec Indians beat back French forces with sticks and shovels.

The descendents of those patriots are famous for mending every generation gap in music. But the sight before the bandstand is odd nonetheless. The fierce, solemn visage peering down on these teens belongs not to some doe-eyed Latin-pop-explosion star but to local Tex-Mex cumbia master Jesse Ramos of Los Conocidos. Though his portly frame appears stiff, his right hand retains the grace of a dancer, flitting lightly around the accordion keys to the oompah of bassist-singer Jose Medina.

Onstage behind him, DJ Francisco of the St. Paul Chicano hip-hop crew Los Nativos ("The Native Ones") quietly packs up his turntables. He has just performed a set soundtracking a street demonstration of low-rider car hydraulics. Now it's as if Kraftwerk has cleared out of some mid-Seventies German folk festival to make room for what the kids really want: polka!

What, I wonder, would Augie make of these children? So open to the old songs, so eager to couple-dance to the cumbias and flirt to the sounds of instruments his parents would dig? Augie might say he danced to his parents' music too, adapting old styles to blues just as modern DJs pump cumbia beats into techno. Yet he might add something else: Many of these festivalgoers--who total an estimated 12,000 on Friday and 75,000 on Saturday--are, like his parents, immigrants themselves.

Statistics offer an incomplete picture: Between 1990 and 1998, the number of Minnesotans between ages 15 and 24 who identified themselves as Hispanic increased from 10,223 to 15,960, though some community advocates consider the latter figure a gross underestimation. Within the same time span the number of self-identified Hispanics in Hennepin and Ramsey counties climbed from about 28,000 to about 42,000. Many in the local Latino music business say that most of the new arrivals come from Mexico, and most of those in the past five years.

This is a tidal shift within the Latino community. And on the Cinco de Mayo festival's third day you can see the effects. On Sunday the West Side's carnival and bandstand numbers dwindle to fewer than 5,000 people as much of the crowd shifts over to another Cinco de Mayo festival--this one held on East Lake Street in Minneapolis.

While Minnesota's first wave of Mexicans settled mainly on St. Paul's West Side, opting out of the migrant labor life begun in the 1920s to take jobs on the railroad or in factories, the new immigrants have settled mostly around the developing business strip between I-35W and the West Bank. The new population has attracted its own capitalists as well. While the festival on Concord has always been organized by some incarnation of the Riverview Economic Development Association (REDA), the newer festival on Lake was organized primarily by Guatemalan-born business magnate Selwin Ortega.

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