In the early 2000s, Austin powerhouse outfit Grupo Fantasma started a cumbia-funk revival that would lead to national and international acclaim, a Vegas residency with Prince and a Golden Globes party with Mary J. Blige and Marc Anthony sitting in. But as heat built around the group, Austin was slow to catch on.
"We had our little corner at the Empanada Parlor, which we should always be grateful for, because we weren't really getting into anywhere else," Beto Martinez, one of the group’s founding guitarists, said during an Aug. 31 roundtable discussion with Latinx musicians on Austin360’s weekly streaming show, the Monday Music Mashup. The group consistently sold out the hideaway club on the banks of a glorified drainage ditch near Sixth Street and Interstate 35, "but it took a long time to spread out of there," Martinez said.
"It was eight years since we started and many, many years of doing really well before we got something like the coverage of the (Austin) Chronicle," Martinez said.
Over the past decade, mainstream Austin clubs have become more welcoming, Martinez said. A few years ago, his acid-cumbia act, Money Chicha, played a gig "at the Continental Club, of all places," alongside Colombian-fusion acts Superfónicos and Kiko Villamizar. After the bands played, a percussion circle with gaitas, traditional Colombian flutes, broke out.
Martinez remembers watching from the side as a realization dawned: "Wow, this is the Continental Club on Congress in Austin, and there's like this hardcore Colombian-type folkloric music happening here," he said.
Still, as Austin grows rapidly, not all change has been beneficial; solidarity and representation are more important than ever, the artists agreed. Gentrification is reshaping the character and disrupting the roots of neighborhoods that once were defined by Latinx flavors, sounds and culture.
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"We all need to be very mindful of the fact that the east side is the birthplace in Austin of Tejano music. We need to do better to preserve Tejano music, because that was there first," Stephanie Bergara, lead singer of Selena tribute band Bidi Bidi Banda, said during the roundtable.
Alex Vallejo, a community advocate and part of the rock band Vallejo, agreed.
Tejano is a mix of "Texas and Mexicanos and Chicano," he said, noting that the history of Tejano music in Austin stretches back to the 1800s.
Along with a group of music leaders from Austin’s Latinx community, Vallejo recently formed the Latin Music Coalition of Austin. He’d like to see a museum or an exhibit that documents the story of Tejano music in Austin, he said.
At a meeting of the Austin Music Commission in early August, Vallejo and the coalition called for the creation of a Latino Music Fund from the new Austin Live Music Fund.
"As of today, there’s still not a signature Latin music venue, a radio station that nurtures Latin local talent or a destination Latin-centric music festival," Vallejo said during the meeting.
"I feel like I’ve played every venue on Red River," Bergara said during the roundtable. But there’s no club in Austin that feels like "our home base," she said, noting that Flamingo Cantina is probably the venue that comes closest.
During the roundtable, Patricia Vonne — founder of the popular South by Southwest party Latina-palooza and part of the new Texicana Mamas supergroup — said she was grateful for early career opportunities she’d been given by bookers at clubs like Antone’s and the old-school Sixth Street rock haunt Steamboat, which closed in 1999.
Vonne remembers playing Steamboat with Los Lonely Boys and Del Castillo, "all of us in one night," and said she was thankful for Antone’s Latin night when she was coming up, too.
"The thing about that is like, that's wonderful, I agree, that those bands are all playing on that one night, but who's playing the night before and who's playing the night after?" Bergara said.
"We do go into a lot of major venues and they treat us like gold, but the next night they've got, you know, any white man band," she said.
"Consistency is what's key, and changing it up on a day-to-day (basis) rather than having that one night is really what's key, and we need to see more of that," Martinez said.
Bergara’s push for greater representation goes beyond the Latinx community. In the wake of this summer’s Black Lives Matter protests, "we as a country have afforded ourselves the place to never stop talking about (systemic discrimination) ever, ever, ever, ever again," she said.
In March, she changed the language in her band’s booking contracts to include a diversity clause.
"We are opting to not play events unless there are other people of color on the lineup. We are not going to be the token band that you check the box off and then say that you are, you know, a multicultural festival," she said, adding that she stands "in super solidarity with my friends and colleagues like Jackie Venson and Gina Chavez, who are also making similar booking choices."
Martinez said that, speaking from his perspective as a Mexican American man who’s part of a large minority group in Austin, not having black skin means "we can sometimes just sort of hide in the background and kind of get by, by not saying that much."
"But I think that that time has passed," he said, "and right now, we have to be really vocal and really supportive and stand with solidarity to bring these issues to the forefront and back up all people of color, but especially African Americans, our Black brothers and sisters."
(Martinez was one of the first musicians to sign a petition from non-Black artists supporting Jonathan "Chaka" Mahone’s call for the creation of a city-funded Black Live Music Fund earlier this year.)
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For many Latinx musicians creating art in the Trump era, politics have been hard to avoid. The administration’s anti-immigration rhetoric and strong focus on the border hit close to home.
"I think I wrote my first border song on my third album in 2007, about the missing women of Juarez, Mexico, in both English and Spanish to bookend my album — scream out loud, you know, a prayer-like battle cry of what's happening on the border that's (often) very veiled," Vonne said. "Now, what's happening on the border is horrific."
On her new album with the Texicana Mamas, there’s a song in Spanish called "Amor Sin Fronteras," love without borders, and a second song called "American Dream" that the band "translated to English for everyone to understand," she said.
Vonne is a member of the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), and before the world shut down due to the coronavirus pandemic, she planned to travel to Washington, D.C., for a Fourth of July event addressing border issues.
"I'm from the border, and definitely everything that's been happening, from the detention of children to separation of families and everything, it's from tragic to infuriating, and it has affected us in a lot of ways," Martinez said. He’s been in communication with the No Border Wall Coalition in his native Laredo about "potentially doing a virtual concert or something or just trying to help."
He feels like it’s important for artists "to bring light to these issues and to oppose these actions," he said.
Bergara recalled singer-songwriter Jason Isbell’s response to critics who said he would lose his audience if he didn’t stop speaking out on political issues. "Maybe so, but I get to keep ALL of my SOUL," Isbell tweeted in June.
"I'm going to keep all of my soul," Bergara said. "I may lose my fans. I may lose some gigs and some money, but I'm going to keep all of my soul, you know, and that's an important thing to kind of keep in mind and to keep talking about."
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Over the past few years, there’s been a surge of mainstream interest in Latinx music with stars like Camila Cabello and J. Balvin topping the charts and indie breakouts like Cuco and Omar Apollo selling out venues across the country. But Martinez noted that people have been talking about a Latin music breakthrough for 20 years.
"Shouldn’t it already be broken through to where it's not a specialty item?" he said.
Latinx people make up more than 30% of Austin’s population, but they remain under-represented at the city’s large festivals and events. Grupo Fantasma played the first year of Austin City Limits Music Festival and were invited back for the third year, "but in the last 16 years, I have four bands, you know, and none of them were invited," Martinez said.
In 2017, ACL Fest caused a stir when festival organizers failed to book a single Latinx act. In the past two years, Latinx representation at the festival has improved significantly, with high profile bookings like Cabello, Cuco, Kali Uchis and Cardi B alongside more Latinx artists down ticket.
"I'm happy to see them kind of correcting course," Bergara said, noting that the team at C3 Presents, the company behind ACL Fest, are doing "a great job of trying to be more inclusive in their bookings across the board." In 2019, the company booked J. Balvin to headline ACL’s sister festival, Lollapalooza, in Chicago.
"It's a super proud moment to be a Latinx person and to go to ACL Festival and to see someone who looks like you, or someone who looks like they could be related to you, on stage. It's a big deal," she said.