Las Cafeteras to play Winston-Salem
The members of the Los Angeles band Las Cafeteras all came to the type of music they’re playing through activism. The band makes thoroughly hybridized American music, with touches of hip-hop, soul, folk and rock ‘n’ roll, but it’s rooted in the traditional songs the Mexican state of Veracruz and a style known as son jarocho. The members of Las Cafeteras all grew up in East Los Angeles, and each of them had their own awakening of Chicano pride over the years. As Mexican-Americans, the children of Mexican immigrants, the culture of Los Angeles was for them, as for everyone else, a melting-pot culture. I spoke with vocalist and dancer Hector Flores by phone last week from Los Angeles about the band and their music. Las Cafeteras play downtown Winston-Salem on July 26 at the Stevens Center.
When people talk about American music, they’re almost always, on one level or another, talking about some variety of recent-arrival music, a fusion of music made by the descendants of people who were brought here against their will (enslaved Africans), people who came here to pursue religious or economic freedoms or to flee persecution (immigrants), or people who were here before everyone else (Native Americans) and who may have, depending on the archeological evidence, come to North America on foot, millennia ago, in search of food and better weather.
Las Cafeteras are part of a wave of 21st-century bands — such as Chicano Batman and MAKU Soundsystem — that bring immigrant consciousness to the front of their music-making project. Las Cafeteras took shape organically a little over 10 years ago when the members met through their involvement in community activism and their shared interest in traditional song and dance. They started out performing at cafes and on the streets and moved on from there. Like many musicians in their 20s, 30s, 40s and 50s in the Americana and roots scenes who have gravitated toward older styles like country blues, old-time, ragtime, jug band and bluegrass, the members of Las Cafeteras grew up listening and playing other music — youth music. They were into punk, the Riot Grrrl scene, gangsta rap and other flavors of rebel music. But as kids in Mexican-American families, in East Los Angeles, they also grew up hearing salsa, cumbia, corridos, rancheras, boleros and other popular music of Latin America. But Mexican culture wasn’t something they necessarily gravitated toward as young people.
“Being a Chicano — a Mexican-American kid growing up in L.A. in the ‘80s and ‘90s — I was ashamed to be Mexican,” Flores said. “I didn’t want to speak Spanish.”
But the connection between the simplicity, poetry, and timelessness of Mexican folk — particularly of the acoustic and expressive style from Veracruz — and the immediacy and urgency of punk served as a bridge to the music. Las Cafeteras have taken strands of the tradition and braided it with a contemporary touch. It’s exuberant, old and new.
“We didn’t grow up with son jarocho, which is what I think was so enticing about the music,” Flores said. “We knew it was organically Mexican, but I had never heard it on the radio. We found it so accessible, so beautiful and poetic. It was wonderful. It was call-and-response. It was very communal. It was kind of like punk music — you could learn three chords and be part of the tradition.”
Flores and the members of Las Cafeteras make a point of stressing a few things about their music. They call it Afro-Mexican music to highlight the connection both to the culture of Mexicans of African descent (Spain participated in the Atlantic slave trade and brought enslaved Africans to what was New Spain) and to make a linkage to the elements of syncopation, call-and-response and high-contrast accents which are often found in African-derived music. Also, Mexico is, by definition, a “mestizo” or mixed country. Another thing to note about Las Cafeteras, when you look at them you’ll see that they’re not a folkloric museum project; they don’t dress up in traditional outfits. They look like stylish young people from any city. They wear jeans, hoodies, knit caps, floral print shirts, sneakers, fashionable dresses. They’re not pretending to be folk musicians from another place and another time.
“More than anything, we wanted to use the music to celebrate our work, to celebrate our stories,” Flores said. “We wanted to write songs about our lives, our experience of growing up in the barrios of Los Angeles.”
Now, in the age of Trump, child-separation at border detention centers, and talk of wall-building, telling their stories has turned slightly more political than it might have seemed 10 years ago. The band’s Mexican-flavored version of “Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land” only has to exist as it is, and it becomes a bold statement about belonging and freedom. And Las Cafeteras’ “If I Was President,” off of their 2017 record Tastes Like L.A., is a to-do list of for-the-people initiatives (public health care, education, fair law enforcement policy, and more).
When I ask Flores if things have changed as a result of the heightened tensions in American politics, attacks on immigrants and violence toward non-English speakers, he says yes and no.
“I think what Trump offered is for hateful speech to be much more blatant. And we’ve seen it going throughout the country,” Flores said. “At the same time, we’ve seen a lot more solidarity and a lot more hope.”
The band got a fair amount of attention recently when Minnesota Congressman Keith Ellison, the first Muslim elected to Congress, came to one of their shows and got a Las Cafeteras T-shirt with the slogan “I Don’t Believe In Borders” on it. Conservative news outlets seized on the image to suggest that Ellison and others wanted to abolish national borders.
“We got a lot of really bad and really great publicity from it,” Flores said. “It’s interesting now, because of the snatching the babies at the border, and the rhetoric about building the wall, but when we talk about not believing in borders, we’re talking about the borders that exist in people’s hearts and the borders that exist in people’s minds. Those are the greatest borders that we’re talking about.”
John Adamian lives in Winston-Salem, and his writing has appeared in Wired, The Believer, Relix, Arthur, Modern Farmer, the Hartford Courant and numerous other publications.