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

Perhaps more than any other single figure in the state, Ortega has thrived on the changes in Latino Minneapolis. Representatives for REDA say that he has always had a tense relationship with their organization, which is headquartered on Concord next door to one of Ortega's nine Las Americas supermarkets. Ortega denies any rivalry, but since 1993 he has set up his own independent stage on the West Side, adjacent to REDA's festival. One year, according to an REDA employee who wishes to remain anonymous, a director tore down a Coca-Cola banner on Ortega's property, claiming it wasn't an official sponsor of the broader event.

Since 1994 Ortega has branched out to book bands on East Lake for Cinco de Mayo, expanding from just one stage (one day, six vendors, half a block) to this year's three stages (two days, thirty-five vendors, three blocks). Now he flies in bands from Chicago and Mexico, organizing contests for local dancers and musicians and anyone who can scream "Viva México!" the loudest.

"This area used to be called Crack Avenue," Ortega says, gesturing toward the street outside his corporate office on Fourth Avenue and Lake Street. He's a solidly built man with streaks of gray in his thick mustache. "When I began on this block, there was only one business, the fish place next to us. Now all the buildings are sold out."

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

Ortega is a controversial figure within the community, partly because he has built a small empire of businesses that were started to compete with existing ones and partly because of conflicts with his own employees--he recently shelled out $373,404 to 315 workers for overtime pay violations cited by the U.S. Department of Labor. Since opening his first grocery on East Lake in late 1992, Ortega has founded a Spanish newspaper, El Periódico, to compete with the previously established La Prensa, and a Latino phone directory, Primer Directorio Hispano Del Nuevo Siglo, to compete with the Minnesota Hispanic Directory. He has launched a dozen other enterprises along the way.

Most significant, perhaps, Ortega is preparing to compete with the Twin Cities' oldest Spanish-only radio station, Radio Rey (WMIN-AM 740), which also happens to be his former tenant at Las Americas on Concord. Ortega has petitioned the FCC to purchase Shakopee's KSMM-AM (1530) by late summer, announcing his plan to replace the current request-driven rock-and-talk format with bilingual Latino programming.

Citing the swelling Spanish-speaking population, Ortega sees nothing overambitious about effectively doubling the size of the local Spanish media. "The first Hispanics came to Minnesota and they really lost their heritage a little bit, I believe," he says. "Now we have people who come into our stores who see their cousins and their brothers, and everybody is speaking Spanish."


KSMM's imminent Latino makeover has prompted protest from listeners loyal to the current format, and station communications director Tammy Schulman points out that the signal will miss most of its target area--Minneapolis and St. Paul proper--after sundown, when it powers down from 8,600 watts to only 10.

"I see it as a radio station that should have been successful but never got the chance," she says over the phone, while predicting that the new owners may encounter even more difficulties. "We're serving a geographic community, and they're [going to serve] an ethnic slice."

But consider that slice. Further down East Lake, at 27th Avenue, is Vannandy's restaurant and ballroom , a music venue that advertises only in Spanish yet nonetheless packs its nearly biweekly live norteño concerts with ticket prices up to $40 a head. (The business books much larger shows at St. Paul's Armory.) In fact, there are a half-dozen promoters working full-time to book salsa, merengue, Tejano, and cumbia shows in town.

Less than a block away from the ballroom stands Radio Rey itself, in the location it has occupied since leaving Las Americas in January. The station's new home is a bare-bones storefront where energetic owner Lupe Gonzalez oversees his three DJs--the guys who play the recorded spots for Vannandy's live shows.

One warm May afternoon, the Mexican native chats idly on the phone with an advertiser, the busyness of Cinco de Mayo a few weeks behind him. On the air, a representative from Our Lady of Guadalupe church is speaking in Spanish, having purchased a half-hour time slot for a sum that, by the usual commercial standards, amounts to a gift. Gonzalez wears a suit, a brim hat, and a mustache that seems to curl at the sides when he smiles.

Denying the rumor of a falling out with his old landlord, Gonzalez says he just didn't have room at the grocery store for his expanded operations, which now include office cubicles, a copy machine, and a second studio in the basement. To show off the recording room, he descends a small staircase to a closet-sized chamber cluttered with recording equipment. "It's not Paisley Park," he laughs.

Before being contacted by City Pages, Gonzalez didn't know that Ortega planned to program Latino music seven days a week. Still, he says he is unworried. "Competition is really good for business," he remarks, taking care to emphasize he is "good friends" with Ortega. "But Las Americas can't compete with us. He's no radio business, he's a grocery store."

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