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.

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."

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."

 

Competing for advertising might seem a zero-sum game in Latino radio, and Dominican Republic native Maximo Mena, for one, confirms that he'll advertise his Nicollet record store, Mena's, with the new station--should it succeed. He admits this might draw income from Radio Rey in the short term. But Mena's, like everything else in the local Latino music scene, has been expanding for years--giving salsa dance lessons, opening a nearby hair salon, even booking the occasional show.

Mena says his newest customers are younger than those who shopped at his store a few years ago, and most are Mexican. "But they're open to everything," he adds. The Chicano youth milling about his store will probably turn out for his August 26 Caribbean Festival, which he has booked as a block party in front of his store. So, most likely, will the gringos who turn up at his dance lessons.

After all, some things haven't changed since the River Road days. Monday nights at the Quest have grown into one of the most racially integrated events in town, featuring salsa DJs and the Caribbean and Mexican rhythms of Orquesta Sabor Tropical. Call it crossover in reverse, with the mainstream coming to experience Latino culture. Except that salsa itself, as OST singer Maya López-Santamaría points out, is also an essentially American invention, drawing on Cuban and Puerto Rican rhythms, but having originated in New York. In her indispensable CD and booklet Música de la Raza: Mexican & Chicano Music in Minnesota (Minnesota Historical Society Press), the frontwoman notes that Latino diversity has forced local DJs to stay similarly eclectic. The crossbreeding of genres, the essence of all rock 'n' roll, is perhaps inevitable.

In truth, whenever Los Conocidos or any other accordion heroes toss off a cover of "La Bamba" for an encore, they need hardly bother. Like the KDWB-FM (101.3) listeners recently puzzled by the same crossover gesture from pop superstar Enrique at the Target Center, the cumbia couples have redefined for themselves what American music means. They don't need rock 'n' roll, or even English. They have, in a sense, blurred the border.

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