The summer of 2012 was an eventful one for Rene Contreras. The curly-haired Chicano resident of Pomona launched, with the help of a few friends, a little festival at the Glass House in his hometown. They dubbed it Viva! Pomona.
It was his way of defending Pomona, located on the edge of the Los Angeles/San Bernardino county line, from all the hate it would get from people he'd meet at shows in Echo Park and Silver Lake. He knew that Pomona and the neighboring Inland Empire had plenty to offer in the way of music and art. The artists just lacked a proper avenue to express themselves.
Now in its fifth year, Viva! Pomona continues to thrive as an ambitious space where local as well as international talent gather for a weekend-long celebration. Since 2014, the festival's third edition, Contreras has shifted the focus of Viva! Pomona slightly in order to create a space where Latino and non-Latino artists from similar genres can thrive alongside one another.
Contreras has successfully brought together diverse acts ever since, with this year's edition being no exception. Groups such as Shannon & The Clams, Brain Freeze, Linafornia and The Paranoyds will perform on various indoor and outdoor stages alongside Alice Bag, Chicano Batman, Vanessa Zamora and Chico Sonido, to name a few.
“It's only $20, there's free parking, and you can catch Pokemon,” Contreras says. “I know a lot of people in the industry, like in any industry, try to exploit culture. I'm not trying to exploit my culture. I'm just trying to invite other people that are like-minded … that share the same common ground, and that's to mix languages and culture in a way that's affordable to people.”
In the spirit of five years of Viva! Pomona, here are five artists to see at this year's festival.
Alice Bag arrives at Viva! Pomona hot on the heels of releasing the first solo album of her 40-year career. Bag (born Alicia Armendariz) embodied the bicultural spirit of Viva! Pomona before Contreras was even conceived. The Chicana punk/feminist icon grew up listening to the music of Cuco Sanchez and David Bowie before leading L.A.'s punk scene in the 1970s as lead singer and co-founder of The Bags. More bands, a pair of books, lots of art and a few years of work as an elementary school teacher followed before her eponymous debut album.
“Reading about her firsthand experience expressing herself and, at the same time, validating her culture and identity as a Chicana woman is very powerful,” Contreras says. He reached out to Bag via email in February and began a friendly conversation with her about his own upbringing. “For her to do it in the '70s, that's pretty powerful and admirable. She broke ground for Latinos.”
It's anyone's guess which version of Sister Mantos will appear onstage this weekend. Will it be group founder Oscar Miguel Santos alone with a laptop and a sweet light show that would put Justin Timberlake to shame? Will it be the full band along with the dancing dude dressed in a leotard draped in fig leaves? Could it be a rare acoustic set? Whatever the case, the end result is guaranteed to be highly entertaining, gender-fluid, unironic, lo-fi disco fun.
Contreras discovered the group by way of the Riverside collective Black & Brown Underground and fell in love with them immediately. “You're dancing away your struggles,” he says of the group's politically conscious dance-floor antics. “Being in a queer band, being Salvadoran, I mean, that's amazing, and his whole band is backed by amazing musicians. They understand that we need to break down this barrier of exploiting people and exploiting communities. That's what I really liked about them: their message and what they embody.”
This surf-punk trio from San Diego are actually repeat offenders, who first played Viva! Pomona two years ago. “They played second on the Glass House stage,” Contreras recalls. “Their set was great, their sound was great, and they're down for the cause. They understand that we're trying to develop other artists and develop a new form of things as far as creating a new platform of multicultural artists. For them to put themselves out there at such an early phase of the vision is really cool.”
The trio recently released their second album, You Are Going to Hate This, on Dangerbird Records in February. The festival serves as the launch point for their summer tour with Hunny and Gym Shorts before their fall tour supporting FIDLAR beginning in October.
Fans of shoegaze music would do well to learn Spanish if they don't know it already. For some reason, there's a plethora of shoegaze artists across Latin America and Spain. Major cities such as Tijuana and Guadalajara, Mexico; La Plata, Argentina; Santiago, Chile; and Valencia, Barcelona and Madrid in Spain are underground hotbeds of groups that regularly blast listeners with walls of noise and mumbled vocals.
Vaya Futuro from Tijuana is firmly in that camp of mangled guitar hooks and heavy distortion. With just two albums in their eight years of existence, the band formerly known as Celofan has a droning and overpowering sound that's a clear nod to My Bloody Valentine, Slowdive and other greats.
“I feel that another thing that's important to bring to the L.A. community is all these shoegaze bands, not just from Tijuana but also Chile or Argentina, and broaden their horizons,” Contreras says. “We have all these artists that are coming up and are really talented but they just get overlooked because … they're not from the U.S. or they don't speak English.”
Los Blenders are return Viva! Pomona guests, having played the festival's third edition in 2014. The surf-rock group from Mexico City played an early outdoor set that immediately set off a small pit and crowd surfing among young and old alike (though mostly young). It's a bit odd for a group of guys from Mexico's capital to be playing surf-rock music, considering that the nearest beach is hours away. But one wouldn't know it from listening to the razor-sharp licks and bouncing rubber bass lines from their album Chavos Bien.
“I couldn't really put a band from Mexico City on a festival budget yet, so I flew in four guys from Mexico City with my own money,” Contreras recalls of the band's first foray in Pomona with a laugh. “I hung out with them in Tijuana on Calle Revolución. It was like 2 in the morning and I was telling them, 'Come play my show, I'll fly you out but I don't know where you're going to stay.'” Thankfully, Contreras didn't have to blow his own money or ask a friend for some spare floor space again for a worthy cause this year.
Viva! Pomona takes place this Saturday and Sunday, July 16 and 17, at the Glass House and surrounding area, starting at 4 p.m. each day. Tickets and more info.