Within the first few hours of the Tropicália Music and Taco Festival on Saturday, it became clear that the event would define an important cultural moment for Southern California.
After shaking their hair around to the psychedelic cumbia surf of East L.A.’s Thee Commons, fannypack-donning normcore kids darted across the Long Beach festival grounds to sway their hips to Celso Piña, Mexico’s rebelde del acordeón, before running back, through a food court filled with L.A.’s best taquerias, to grind like preteens at a middle-school dance as Genuwine performed his 1996 hit “My Pony.”
As if tasked with doling out a history lesson early on, the stages continued this call-and-response for the surprisingly large noontime crowd, alternating between classic Latin acts, nostalgic R&B and contemporary riffs that pulled from everything in between.
“This is the soundtrack to my childhood!” a young, queer couple wearing matching “Young, Latin & Proud” shirts squealed to each other (with as much surprise as pride) between La Sonora Dinamita’s high-energy cumbia tracks. Then they flitted off to watch South L.A.’s Wu-Tang Clan–loving Buyepongo play jazzy punta songs off their latest EP, Túmbalo.
This is what it sounds like to be a millennial Latinx in Southern California right now, a time when people of color are being demonized by top government officials and identity is less and less able to fit into the structured boxes of yore. Instead of being depressed about the hate and divisiveness exposed by such politics, the youth are embracing a world where chaos is the norm and sonic and cultural diversity are a given.
Like the Tropicália movement in 1960s Brazil, from which the festival gets its name, this new breed of Latinx listeners are not afraid to borrow, copy, paste and reclaim elements of popular culture as their own along the way. If Brazil is at its best when it cannibalizes other cultures (as the manifesto that inspired the Tropicália movement proposed), then so is Southern California, a place with strong Hispanic roots and a history built on the art and culture of its immigrant populations.
Using the no-limits power of the internet as a guide, these millennial Latinxs are driving the creation and celebration of an entirely new generation of Chicano culture that seems poised to unite even non-Latinxs with its vision of a borderless universe.
Previous music fests like Supersonico, La Tocada and last year’s three-day Rock Fiesta in Arizona all tried to appeal to the Latin side of this inevitable future but missed the mark by ignoring related English-language acts. Viva Pomona and the Sonora Stage at this year’s Coachella, both booked by Rene Contreras, got the formula right but lacked the funding to book bigger-name veteran acts. Whether or not it was the goal, Tropicália (organized by the team behind Orange County venue the Observatory) marked the largest manifestation of this nuevo Latino movement to date.
By the time the sun went down, Tropicália’s three side stages had already hosted everything from dub and funk DJs to dive-bar indie rock bands to ’90s Spanish-language ska and more.
On the mainstage, traditional ideas of masculinity and femininity were being crushed out of existence, first by Cuco — the 19-year-old bedroom crooner who wound through sadboy hits like “Cupid’s Quiver” and “We Had to End It” to a screaming crowd of female fans — and then by Ivy Queen, the powerful reggaetonera who had by far one of the best sets of the day.
Donning a bright red fedora, black hot pants and over-the-knee white patent leather boots, the Puerto Rican rapper performed intense club bangers about one-night stands, female empowerment and the politics of the dance floor, reminding everyone where modern-day malandrinas like Cardi B got their flow.
Other classic female performers long underappreciated for their efforts in male-dominated genres got enthusiastic revivals at Tropicália. Spanish psychedelic-pop singer Jeanette — whose songs “Porque Te Vas” and “Oye Mama Oye Papa” were probably on most of your Mexican friends’ mom’s playlists — returned with the same soothing vocals heard on songs recorded 40 years ago. A recent injury forced rockabilly singer Wanda Jackson (the Queen of Rockabilly) to perform on the Modelo Stage sitting down, but her signature snarl and rebel spirit were uncrushed.
As the sun set, the evening's entertainment essentially split into two tracks. After about 6 p.m., you could stay on one side of the fest and get a solid lineup of oldies like Brenton Wood and The Delfonics along with rappers (Smino), neo-soul purveyors (The Jack Moves) and dance music DJs (Sango).
On the other side, Latin alt juggernauts Café Tacvba launched a night of newer artists that exist in their eclectic wake, including the notoriously genre-averse King Krule, Colombian R&B goddess Kali Uchis and the band that could be considered the big brothers of L.A.’s new Latin alt sound: Chicano Batman. No matter which side you chose, the entire day felt like floating between a quinceañera playlist and everything we’ve been listening to alone in our bedrooms for the last year.
Like so many other festivals — from Coachella to FYF — Tropicália responded to today’s music listeners by being inclusive of a wide range of artists and sounds. But the difference this time was in a clear rejection of the kinds of acts that have come to define mainstream American music, replacing them instead with both new and nostalgic artists well-known within SoCal’s diverse Latin-American communities.
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The result is a game-changer on par with Afropunk, which was the first festival to acknowledge a wider range of African-American music and identity than is usually peddled by the record labels. Tropicália's organizers understood this opportunity and sold an entire day of music and food based upon the full, messy spectrum of second-generation Latinx identity in the United States.
In a poignant example of the two sides of this new era, Tropicália faced attendees with a choice of closing acts for the night. On the Dia de Los Puercos Stage, R&B singer Jhene Aiko soared over beats to songs from her latest drug-induced album, Trip. On the main stage, multi-Grammy-winning legendary norteño group Los Tigres del Norte played a nearly two-hour set of corridos, ballads and cumbias.
The crowds for both were as large as they had been all day. The kids are gonna be all right.
[Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly described Wanda Jackson as performing in a wheelchair. She was, in fact, sitting on a stool. We regret the error.]