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The Rock's First Ripple: The History of Rock Music in Mexico

Updated on February 7, 2012

Introduction: Rock as Luxury Turned Popular Good

What was the first stop on rock music's ongoing world tour? Since the first rock was performed in English in the United States of America, the answer is often given as the UK or some other English-speaking country, but rock's oldest predominantly non-English-speaking market was among Baby Boomers living within the borders of the US's southern neighbor, Mexico. It was there that rock impresarios, performers, and listeners first had to deal with a double-edged sword of political objections to the "importation" of rock to non-Anglophone cultures: on the one hand, conservative resistance to challenges to the social order, and on the other, leftist opposition to cultural imperialism, which put pressure on local and particularly indigenous or marginalized forms of art and the lifestyles associated with them. These conflicts were exacerbated, as were their effects on rock's popularization in Mexico, by a relationship with the US that remains one of the most complex international ties on Earth between two neighboring, non-combatant countries. High tariffs under the PRI (Institutional Revolutionary Party), Mexico's one de facto governing party for most of the twentieth century, ensured that rock music, be it foreign or domestic (the latter is the focus of this article), would initially be regarded as a luxury good, a far cry from its present-day status as its own roquero subculture among disaffected urban and suburban youth.

The Refrito: Variations on a Rockin' Theme (1955-1965)

It is likely impossible to know when Mexican youth in rock's original target age range first tuned the dial to Texas or California radio, or received a record from a friend of a friend or from a family acquaintance returning from the other side of the border. This sort of cross-pollination probably occurred as soon as records by Bill Haley, Chuck Berry, and Elvis Presley burst onto the US airwaves, but rock's real point of entry into Mexico may be quite surprising to many Americans: parents. Yes, indeed, rock rhythms and even some rock songs of the late 1950s and early 1960s were played, though not necessarily by the original artists, in dance clubs and private parties across Mexico as just one of many Afro-Caribbean rhythms, under the blanket label of música tropical. Upper- and middle-class adults listened to the genres so labeled, such as son, mambo, and merengue, as just one of many aspects of their cosmopolitan, increasingly American-inspired lifestyle and image. Eventually, savvy record label executives saw the potential for combining the teen-friendly lyrical subject matter of American rock, albeit in sanitized form, and the original American melodies that were becoming popular with wealthy people of all ages. What resulted was a youth product that appealed to upper-crust teenagers, a style of translated rock known as the refrito (literally "refried"). To critics, it seemed like a latter-day caricature of everything José Vasconcelos, the chief ideologue of the early PRI government in the 1920s, had decried as "copied civilization." Besides adding Spanish lyrics to the melodies of the originals themselves, groups and their producers would adopt Spanglish names such as Los Teen Tops and Los Black Jeans and even attempt the guttural, blues-influenced wail of early American rockers. Once the formula for a particular group had completed the standard American-modeled cycle of teenybopper dance shows, the lead singers would, in cases such as the Teen Tops' Enrique Guzmán, follow in the King's footsteps and make movies with saccharine pop soundtracks. In any case, this was not cutting-edge rock music or even cutting-edge rock 'n' roll, but it satisfied its affluent consumers in its own way and remains, as with any music one grows up with, a popular nostalgia device to this day.

A Mild Scandal: The First Controversies Arise

What was just described may not sound very controversial, particularly when compared to the public culture war over rock music in the US even during the decade before the British Invasion. It must be remembered, though, that rock as a teen phenomenon carried baggage, partly through the American media that often accompanied it, beyond the music itself. The lifestyle of a semi-independent, suburban teenager, given allowance money to supplement part-time jobs and buying their own vehicles to go to their dates, hops, drag races, and what have you, took getting used to in the US, since there was no precedent in living memory. However, in Mexico, a culture that still deeply valued the cohesion of the extended family hosting children until marriage, rock songs depicted something potentially divisive. The prospect of young women having premarital relations, sexual or platonic, and of adolescent boys showing surly disrespect for their elders (or as Mexicans put it, showing desmadre [disrespect of the mother and therefore family] toward buenas costumbres [tradition]), played into anxieties over Mexican society's ability to modernize without disintegrating into chaos. Parents and other authority figures were also worried by sensational news coverage of scandals such as a near-riot in 1959 over cat-calls toward girls in a theater showing Elvis' King Creole. Mexican rock musicians had the added problem of extremely poor treatment on the road, both by domestic managers and club owners and by Mexican-American media outlets skeptical of their appeal to immigrant and Chicano youth, thanks to the long-standing stigma borne by performing artists, who in many ways were still seen as wandering minstrels despite their modern capitalist trappings. Since there was no political content to speak of in the refritos, the left felt little incentive to defend the new music, ignored by the vast majority of the population, from its conservative detractors, getting Mexican rock off to a very shaky start.

La Onda Chicana: Original Rock, 1965-1971

From the mid-1960s, "rock and roll" in Mexico, as elsewhere, shifted from a danceable R&B-C&W mix into "rock music", a full-fledged art form emphasizing original music and lyrics, the latter often touching on themes beyond the standard romantic and novelty purview of mainstream popular music. The local groups embracing this style (e.g., Los Dug Dugs, Three Souls in My Mind, Peace and Love, La Revolución de Emiliano Zapata), who often came from middle-class backgrounds in northern cities closer to the US border than the capital, began their careers playing covers but soon found themselves writing originals in either English, dialects of Spanish spoken in barrios, or both, eschewing the academic Spanish favored by the establishment. Their music and iconography sometimes drew on Mexican motifs, including the government's own revolutionary symbols, but the lyrics, both in linguistic vehicle and content, promoted a post-nationalist, free-love zeitgeist recognized immediately by young American tourists as "hippie." Indeed, one of the most lucrative new tourist circuits, though not one officially welcomed by the Mexican government, consisted of flower children taking buses to Oaxaca to try the original magic mushrooms and shop for regional crafts. The hippies represented a new type of American rock fan, one often deeply interested not only in the music but also in indigenous cultures marginalized by the Mexican ruling class, and introduced many people of all classes in rural areas and barrios to rock culture for the first time.

Spreading the Sound: An Underground Culture Arises

Even without lyrics in "standard" academic Spanish, government censors and police officials soon found the basic subversiveness of the Onda Chicana music dangerous to the future loyalty of affluent youth, who were most likely to learn English in school and were being groomed to form the future core of the increasingly conservative party elite. Responses to this fear included both various forms of radio censorship and closure or harassment of venues in which the artists played. By closing down the juice bars and cafés where Onda groups played for the bourgeoisie, however, the powers that be only succeeded in pushing musicians into clubs serving a working-class clientele, thereby extending the influence of Onda groups from a wealthy minority to the masses. It took a great deal of sacrifice, of course, for performers unaccustomed to poverty to perform in the dives now labeled hoyos fonqui (roughly, "funky holes in the wall"), which tended to be both devoid of amenities and defiant of basic safety standards. In the long run, however, the bands that survived these vicissitudes carved out a place for rock in the working-class consciousness, all but assuring its survival in Mexico. It was not always easy for the new fans to buy records in stores, especially since the government added to its censorship by recalibrating tariffs to favor foreign competition. Nevertheless, a thriving barter system emerged to help remedy that situation, and in any case, live performance was considered the best way to catch popular bands. Bands and their promoters used a combination of cheap, commercial periodicals such as Pop and México canta and still more low-budget, DIY fanzines (usually no larger than a flyer or pamphlet), which combined populist satire and amateur cartoons with a thumbnail sketch of the latest music news and local concert dates. Fanzines, in particular, continue to be a popular means of spreading news and concert dates in working-class neighborhoods around the country.

Avándaro: The End of the Beginning

In the 1970s, Mexican rock music faced its nadir of mainstream media attention, though this should not be misunderstood as implying a lack of popular acclaim in sectors of society that pop radio, the newspapers of record, and the Televisa TV network largely ignored. The editors at these outlets and their publicly owned counterparts cut off most regular channels of access for domestically recorded rock music, a trend already under way on a more gradual basis since the beginning of the Onda Chicana. This shutdown was rapidly accelerated, however, by strong reactions to the Avándaro festival of 1971, sometimes labeled the "Mexican Woodstock." Both authorities and concertgoers were already nervous in the wake of the Tlatelolco Massacre, a kind Kent State writ large in which hundreds of protesting students were shot to clear Mexico City's central square of demonstrators on the eve of the 1968 Olympics. All things considered, however, the youth that headed for this countryside concert were relatively peaceful. There was some marijuana use, not uncommon in that part of the country, and a few indecent exposure cases (the lurid tabloids' favorite aspect) but no stampedes, fights, acid trips, or orgies, as some might have feared in reaction to horror stories of similar festivals elsewhere. All the latter catastrophes, though, were at some point insinuated in the same breath as Avándaro in the Mexican press. The President of Mexico personally urged youth uninterested in the standard pop fare played on the radio to turn to stylized pan-Latin folk music as a "progressive" alternative. Most remaining listeners of means complied, but urban youth, especially in the outer barrios of Mexico City, remained faithful. Their groups were heard by record audiences at the festival and wherever they performed thereafter, be it in a hoyo fonqui or on the back of a truck (the classic rock y ruedas [rock on wheels] that took many artists to Avándaro and lent it its official name).

Freedom from the Spotlight: The Rise of Rock Urbano

By 1975, working-class Mexican youth, especially those living around crowded Mexico City, could call an entire genre more or less their own, though they often continued to listen to older regional styles with their parents. This distinctive category of music, popular to this day, became known as rock urbano. Alex Lora, lead singer-guitarist of Three Souls in My Mind, remade his group into TRI (a none-too-subtle jibe at the ruling PRI party) and crafted the basic template for the new style: blues-rock, often with shades of ranchero ballads or punk and metal touches, that narrated stories of life, strife, and love in a city increasingly characterized by widespread poverty, high crime rates, and a corrupt justice system. Since the audience is dominated by young men, an aggressive, sometimes coarse machismo can be found in many lyrics that can deteriorate into misogyny or homophobia from time to time, though the basic function of the music is to give listeners something with which they can identify, amidst a national media that all too often barely acknowledges urban problems, and, when it does, tends to treat these topics as sensational filler stories. Although the musical basis is quite different, Mexican rock urbano is loosely comparable in terms of its role in inner-city life in Mexico to the role of hip-hop in the US, and has certainly achieved comparable longevity. TRI has performed off and on for decades, recording on Lora's own Denver label since 1985. Other groups such as Tex Tex, who term their music delicious "guacarrock," have deepened the music's relevance to autochthonous Mexican culture by adding in overt traces of regional folk genres. Without massive airplay, network video rotation, or stadium tours, the groups maintain popularity and authenticity through alternative venues, such as bartered tapes, public access TV, and DJ block parties. Rock urbano concerts, called tocadas, tend to be highly informal, open-air affairs at which young people dance energetically, often getting out a week's frustrations in rituals typical of punk and metal circles, such as slam-dancing and moshing, creating an irresistible combination of catharsis and fun for enthusiasts.

Rock en tu idioma: Mexican Rock Returns from the Wilderness

The 1980s brought a series of national crises in Mexico, including economic woes due to plummeting oil prices, law enforcement's failure to control an increasingly violent cross-country drug traffic, and a severe earthquake in 1985. All contributed to decreasing public confidence in the ruling party, forcing at least cosmetic reforms of the political system and rendering debates over the content of rock music a relatively minor issue. Though Mexican society still grapples with many of the problems that emerged during the proverbial Decade of Decadence, rock music is no longer the subject of formal government condemnation and has become a much more integral part of how the people who have known no other Mexico come to terms with their situation. After some of the officially acceptable folk singer-songwriters, including Rockdrigo, Cecilia Toussaint, and Jaime López, began to incorporate rock elements in their music in the early 1980s, middle-class interest in rock revived. An enormous music-oriented swap meet, called the Tianguis del Chopo, was set up in the capital area, and the founding of a handful of dedicated concert halls opened, such as Mexico City's Rockotitlán. Eventually, the major labels and music video nets had to take notice. Televisa and MTV Latino, the dominant music video channels in Mexico; multinational labels such as BMG (Bertelsmann Music) and WEA (Warner Music); and new, often artist-owned record companies such as Comrock, MEISA, Pentagram, and the aforementioned Denver, all opened up new promotion avenues for rock groups, both at home and internationally.

Generation NAFTA: A Globalized Rock Scene in Mexico

Since the mid-1980s, some Mexican rock groups have attained what their predecessors had yearned for in vain: long-term international superstardom. There is no secret formula to modern Mexican rock, though original Spanish lyrics are now essentially taken for granted. Maldita Vecindad and Molotov fuse rock, rap, and punk into trenchant critiques of local corruption and US hostility to immigrants, a stylistic choice that yields them a ready audience on both sides of the US-Mexico border. Caifanes created a moody goth-rock ambiance that shifted to post-grunge when they later became Jaguares. Maná progressed from 80s synth-pop to an eclectic pop-rock mix, while Café Tacvba (sic) took an equally varied but more experimental approach. Bands with enough clout can now get their music--and their often socially conscious messages--plugged on everything from films to telenovelas to Internet radio. BMG director Jesús López, a champion of rock en tu idioma (a marketing slogan translating to "rock in your language), promised to forge a "long-term commitment with rock" and made offers of creative control, a move echoed by his competitors (Fernández and Lannert 58). These promising developments, however, do not necessarily make it easier for up-and-coming acts to be heard. Groups from Argentina and Spain, among other nationalities, have proven stiff competition for Mexican bands on the international Spanish-speaking rock market. While it stands to reason that not everyone can become the next U2, other factors pose problems as well. Outside of the capital area, local governments are often turned over with every election cycle, and cultural affairs posts tend to go to favorites who sometimes display outright hypocrisy toward key issues like concert security, as explained by Maldita Vecindad drummer José Luis Paredes Pacho. As he puts it, "It's perfectly normal, they maintain, to be rowdy and guzzle beer at soccer matches, or to treat a bull like a pincushion at a bullfighting match," but in the case of a concert, he asserts, no precaution is deemed too extravagant, driving up prices considerably for up-and-coming bands (Paredes Pacho 116-18). In addition, rock artists and their fans cannot always be counted on to work together to solve these problems. At a time when being a fan of a particular band or style gives young people more predictable results (and certainly less corruption-fueled disappointment) than participating in politics, fan loyalties can be fierce and degenerate into rivalries or even violence, leading Arturo Romo of the band Oxomaxoma to complain that "more than anything else, there's a lack of mutual respect" among the rock community in Mexico (Barrios and Durán 48). Of course, this sort of rivalry can also be the sign of a healthy diversity, and proves that the music itself has become as meaningful as quality rock music should be to its audience.

New Alternatives: Avanzada Regia and the Return of the Soloist

No up-to-date discussion of Mexican rock history would be complete without a mention of the trend toward alternative radio, which increasingly is forming its own niche between the rock urbano crowd and pop fans dabbling in Televisa-ready crossover acts. The north has again become home to the vanguard of rock experimentation through a phenomenon known as the Avanzada Regia, a diverse group of bands concentrated around Monterrey and drawing on influences from both sides of the Mexican-American border. Some of the Avanzada bands, such as Plastilina Mosh and Kinky, play electronica and industrial. Others, including Pastilla, Zurdok, and Jumbo, show grunge and britpop influences. Monterrey's rock scene has even spawned its own pop-punk band, the platinum-selling Panda, complete with emo-dressing superfans. Beyond any regional category and defying most musical genre labels, a string of often female singer-songwriters, including Ely Guerra, Julieta Venegas, and Natalie Lafourcade, have earned sterling sales and industry accolades. Though American audiences might be tempted to relegate the recordings of these female artists to the catch-all category of "adult alternative" rather than some more strictly defined definition of rock, they are more or less accepted as rock acts by the industry press and have thereby broken through the long pervasive "boys' club" atmosphere of the Mexican rock scene. The Latin Grammys, introduced in 2000 and complicit in the success of both the Avanzada Regia bands and the alternative singer-songwriters, have had up to five different categories available just for rock and alternative records.

Conclusion: Rock as the Trickle-Down Mexican Revolution

One of the most remarkable things about rock music is that, because of its unique combination of commercial dependence (due to the cost of equipment and reliance on records to preserve a band's ultimate legacy) and counter-cultural agitation, rock can be processed in completely different ways by different audiences without losing the essential basis of its appeal. In the US and UK, rock "trickled up" from the working classes to suburbanites and finally the rich, who ultimately came to include the rock stars themselves. In Mexico, however, and in many other countries where rock has had to filter through a language barrier after passing through customs, rock "trickled down" from the rich who treated it as an expensive, exotic foreign product (the way a Western hipster might handle reggae or Peruvian folk music) to the working class, who then gave it their own meaning. Until rock music made in Mexico reached a significant number of people at all levels of Mexican society, the local scene could never become wholly Mexican. In the strictest sense, to be sure, "transplanted" music such as rock can never be viewed as native to Mexico. Notwithstanding, countless Mexican rock musicians, both heralded and all too often unsung, have redefined rock on their own terms, a gesture that is true to the restless, elusive artistic experiment that is rock music.

©earswideopen, 2012, all rights reserved

Citations

Barrios, Fernando, and Thelma G. Durán. El grito del rock mexicano: hablan los roqueros. Mexico City: Ediciones del Milenio, 1995.

Enrique Fernández, José, and John Lannert. “Homegrown Mexican Rock Thrives Against the Odds.” Billboard. 17 Oct. 1992.

Paredes Pacho, José Luis. Rock mexicano: sonidos de la calle. Mexico City: Aguirre & Beltrán, 1993.

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      Paul Wolf 5 years ago

      Rock connoisseurs, take note. The music scene is not going to be the same with this young, smart critic in the mix!