La Justicia looks like any other taco joint in Pilsen or Little Village. It has a gaudy pink facade, and the windows are covered with Corona stickers and little Mexican flags. But show up at 26th and Springfield on a Friday night and you'll stumble into a miniature Aragon Ballroom, a sea of jeans and black T-shirts, corduroys and leather jackets. Three or four Latino rock bands perform here each week, and if a metal act comes on, a small mosh pit inevitably develops in front of the makeshift stage.
Well before midnight on a particularly busy evening, the doors are already closed because the place is so packed it's nearly impossible to move anywhere but up. The crowd surfing kicks in, and since the ceiling is low, bodies bump into the overhead lamps and send them swinging. Plastic cups of beer are flung into the air, but nobody seems to mind--the place is so stuffy a beer bath feels pretty good.
This goes on until 3 AM, when the help starts to sweep and mop up before security has hustled everybody out the door. Soon they'll pack the wooden stage away and haul the tables back in, and this will be a taqueria again.
When Julio Martinez, now 34, opened La Justicia in 1995, he had no intention of operating a part-time music venue. But he was a music fan, and in the late 90s he noticed that Mexican rock bands were starting to "take off like wildfire," as he puts it. He attended the first area concert by pop-rockers Mana in 1997, at a near-empty Rosemont Horizon. When the band returned to the venue a year later, it was nearly sold-out. He also saw Jaguares fill the Aragon twice. In just a couple of years, he says, those bands had achieved the sort of popularity it took well-known traditional Mexican singers decades to build here.
"Many second- and third-generation Mexican-American kids have adopted rock as their music," says Martinez. "They can't identify with what their parents and grandparents listen to. They like American rock. But they like Spanish rock better--it gives them a connection to their roots." So when his brother-in-law Hugo Amaro formed the band Zamandoque Tarahum in 1999, Martinez offered them a gig. He had his staff haul away the 22 tables on the restaurant's first floor to make room for the audience. A few dozen people turned out, and he offered the band a weekly slot.
If La Justicia had been around a decade earlier, Chicago's first rock-en-espanol generation might have had a chance to develop. In the late 80s and early 90s, Pilsen sprouted numerous punk and hardcore acts. "We played in church basements, garages, backyards," says veteran Jose Perez, who cut his teeth in a number of bands back then and now plays bass for the industrial metal band Vendima. "It was very underground, very DIY."
Unable to find proper venues, those bands withered on the vine. But a new generation emerged in the late 90s, with many groups hailing from the northwest side or the suburbs. They drew from contemporary English-language metal and alternative acts as well as "alterlatino" groups like La Maldita Vecindad, Caifanes, and Soda Stereo. They asked Martinez for a chance to play at La Justicia, and the restaurant started to pack in crowds of 200, 250, even 400.
As other restaurants in the area such as Los Cazos and Pepe's followed suit, the number of local Spanish rock acts multiplied, bolstered by a support system that now includes a Web site (Tepoch.com), specialty stores like Casa Jaguares and El Exilio, and weekly shows on area Spanish-language radio stations. Today the scene consists of more than 30 acts in the city and suburbs, many of them with devoted followings.
And it's starting to outgrow the Pilsen and Little Village taqueria circuit--Chicago rockeros have played at venues like Club PM in Logan Square, Rooster Blues in Greektown, and the Big Horse Lounge, a taqueria in Wicker Park. But where could--or should--they grow from there?
This is a community of young immigrants and children of immigrants, and not all of them agree who their audience should be. The scene is split on the issue of language. Most of the musicians were born and raised in America; even those who grew up in households where Spanish was the primary tongue are fluent in English. But while many groups are open to singing in English, some stick with Spanish as a point of pride. "It's about reclaiming our heritage, our roots," says Zamandoque singer and guitarist Ruben Amaro. Others, like guitarist Omar Castro of Uno de Mas, say they don't have ideological reasons for singing in Spanish--it just seems natural. To complicate matters, some fans demand a commitment to the language; Martinez says bands that sing in English at La Justicia don't get a good reception.
There's also some debate about where to play, and for whom. "We'd love to play more gigs on the north side," says Castro. "But it would be a bigger honor if north-siders came here to see us." (In this scene, "north-siders" is a synonym for whites, or "Anglos.") Zamandoque manager Maribel Nuñez sounds a similar note. "We want to make sure we're reaching out to different audiences, and they don't have to know Spanish. But we want to play for people who really appreciate the music and what it means to us. We don't want to play anywhere just for the money."
Zamandoque have played at the Big Horse Lounge, which showcases fledgling local bands of all stripes, but they're mostly content to stay within their community. They perform weekly around Pilsen and Little Village, often at public events like the Mexican Independence Day Parade, and are still La Justicia's unofficial house band. "La Justicia is the temple of the scene," says Amaro. "I don't care what anyone else says."
By "anyone else" he means people like El Guapo singer and guitarist Mike Lopez--musicians who are less concerned with issues of cultural identity than with reaching the largest possible audience. "There's nothing wrong with playing places like La Justicia," says Lopez. "But to draw the larger, Anglo audience we need to play traditional venues.
"We found that some people are afraid to go to Pilsen," he adds. "Even I was a little scared the first time we played there," says the Schaumburg resident.
Lopez's views are seconded by Rorie Valdez of KMA Management, the coordinator of MOBfest, a local industry showcase. For the past two years Valdez has put together Latin rock bills for the fest and offered career advice to local bands. Zeroing in on the Anglo audience is the way to go, she says, but many north-side club owners and clubgoers recoil upon hearing the words "Latin rock"--Valdez says she's been asked if her clients sound like Ricky Martin. When Vendima's Jose Perez tried to convince the owner of a major north-side venue to give his band a gig, "He heard me say 'Latin rock' and asked, 'Is that like Tito Puente with guitars?' It was like, ouch. We didn't get anywhere."
Valdez thinks such stereotypes will persist if the scene gets tangled up in issues of ethnic pride. She urges acts to market themselves not as Latin bands, but as American bands that happen to sing in Spanish. "We need to slot each group in a genre--punk, techno, alternative, whatever--and market them within that genre," she says. She's convinced that the language barrier can be overcome. "Good music is universal. I've seen it with my own eyes--people that come to a show with a skeptical attitude and are so blown away by the music they don't even notice that it's in a different language until three or four songs in."
In truth, only a handful of acts wear their roots on their sleeves--among them Zamandoque, who draw heavily from Mexican folk music, using galloping rhythms like huasteco. Some, like Uno de Mas and Sobredosis, use Latin sounds sparingly; most don't use them at all. They're rock bands, plain and simple.
Valdez points to El Guapo's success as proof that local bands can cross over. El Guapo have played most major north-side venues, either as headliners or in support of acts such as Local H, and have developed a mainstream following, thanks in part to Q101--they appeared on Mancow's Morning Madhouse and had a song in rotation on Local 101. They're not necessarily better or more hardworking than the competition, but they're easy to market: chicks dig Lopez, who struts like he's already a star, and they're flexible about language, often doing English-only shows.
While nobody will begrudge El Guapo their good fortune on the record, detractors gripe that the band's unadventurous pop-punk is a little too obviously indebted to Blink-182. Another act with a large following, Monospit, is often accused of imitating Slipknot. But Valdez couldn't care less. "The bands with the easily recognizable sound are the ones that are going to break through," she says. "They're going to open the doors for other bands, and everyone will benefit in the end."
Regardless of how they market themselves, most of these bands crave a recording contract. In this arena as well, Latin rock bands face distinct challenges. Most labels have Latin music divisions, but they're geared to promote traditional styles like salsa and norteno, says Valdez. A rock band is a curveball. "The industry knows this is a potentially very lucrative market, especially after the last census showed how many Latinos are out there," she says. "But they don't know how to approach it yet." As proof of the scene's potential, she points out that local act Planeta de Crystal sold 20,000 copies of their self-produced 2001 release, Velocidad. "They did that mostly out of the back of a truck. Imagine what they could do with proper backing."
As usual, El Guapo have a leg up on the competition. They recorded two EPs this summer with producer John Agnello (who's worked with Dinosaur Jr and Jay Farrar) and recently teamed up with him again at Gravity Studios and New Jersey's Water Music to record 13 tracks in Spanish for an upcoming full-length. Their self-financed recording is attracting attention from both majors like Dreamworks and Palm Pictures and indies like Minty Fresh and Sonic Garage.
El Guapo are in talks with Budweiser for sponsorship of a 62-date U.S. tour in 2003, and they plan on recording another album in English. The group was also approached by former Urge Overkill front man Nash Kato at the local Latin Grammy Awards party. "He wants us to do an album with him," says Lopez. "We have no idea what it's going to sound like, but he's going to do vocals."
No other local act has had such breaks, but Vendima is signing with Opcion Sonica, the biggest rock-en-espanol indie in the U.S., which will rerelease the group's self-produced debut, Metafisica, next spring. Bassist Jose Perez doesn't expect it to sell a million, but he's certain it will open more doors for the band, and he has his sights set on a certain local club. "I want to play Metro, man. When you get to headline at Metro, that's when you know you made it in Chicago."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Marty Perez.