There’s a scene in the 2017 documentary Residente in which the titular Puerto Rican rapper tells a story about his dislike for a childhood staple. “When I was a kid, I didn’t like milk, so my mom would put a little bit of chocolate into it,” the artist born René Pérez Joglar tells a traditional Siberian folk singer. “Eventually, she put less and less chocolate in, and soon, I didn’t need any chocolate at all. We’re doing that.”
Joglar was referring to traditional folk music, which the former Calle 13 rapper chased (along with his own genetics) around the world, but he might as well have been talking about Latin music, too.
If 2016 was the year that a disturbing portion of the American electorate told Latinos they do not belong in this country by voting for Donald Trump, then 2017 was the year that notion was sonically repelled, as sounds from across the Spanish-speaking diaspora were deposited directly into American pop culture. From indie rock to hip-hop to global pop, Spanish-first artists questioned, then shattered the confines of the unfairly broad “Latin” category, propelling beats once found on Caribbean dance floors and at South American rock shows into their music. This was the year America acknowledged its blessed messiness and embraced—in its musical, if not political, choices—the inevitable multicultural, bilingual future.
But while so many year-end wrap-up stories applauded the stateside success of songs such as “Despacito” (by Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee, featuring Justin Bieber in the remix), the most successful foreign-language song on the Billboard chart ever, and “Mi Gente” (by J Balvin and Willy William, featuring Beyoncé), still topping Billboard’s Hot 100, all of them failed to appreciate what is organically bubbling from the underground on the West Coast.
In California, Latin music isn’t changing the culture, but rather the Latin culture is changing the music. Cumbia has always been worshipped more than reggaeton, a result of our dominant Mexican and Central American populations, whose influence is far more profound than anything from the Caribbean. After all, the land we stand on was once Mexico. And over the past few years, young Latino musicians have been taking the culture and music that pulses through the streets of Orange County and beyond—from West Coast hip-hop to banda to surf rock to lo-fi garage and more—and remixing it using a distinctly Mexican-American bias.
Just as salsa expressed the frenetic experience of being an Afro-Latino immigrant in New York, the experience of living a SoCal Mexican-American identity has taken on a Latin-alternative sazón, canonized with national tours, regional festivals and even its own stage at Coachella.
Bands such as Buyepongo, whose name is the Spanish translation of a Wu-Tang Clan reference, defy easy categorization. All the members grew up in Hispanic-majority Compton on steady diets of hip-hop and Vicente Fernández. Their influences inspired them to create their own attitude-heavy booty-shakers by pulling from Fela Kuti and Honduran punta; a new album, Túmbalo, came out in November.
Thee Commons are from East LA, but they sound more like a Growlers album played while waiting in the border-crossing line. Noodling surf rock mingles with gritty cumbia rhythms and psychedelic chicha riffs under David Pacheco’s shapeshifting sonidero vocals (“Ni de aqui, ni de alla, pero aqui nos vamos a quedar,” he sings on the band’s latest album, Paleta Sonora).
There are already OGs of this new scene, including Chicano Batman, which sprang from La Mirada (via South America) to headline major festivals around the world. Newcomers such as Cuco, an awkward sadboy Soundcloud singer from Hawthorne, and Jasper Bones, another vaporwave crooner, both spent 2017 racking up streams and making teen girls swoon.
The year was also good to artists such as Kali Uchis, a Colombian R&B artist with a voice as silky as her style; powerhouses that double as talent scouts such as Qvolé Collective and the all-female DJ collecive Chulita Vinyl Club (and resident Latinx MCs); and the LA-based scene devoted to Peruvian chicha, which will have its own all-day celebration in March.
On the festival side, the long-running, homegrown Viva! Pomona, which never made any distinctions between what’s Latin and what’s not, finally gave way to wider reaches. With the help of Viva! Presents’ Rene Contreras, Coachella organized a last-minute Sonora Stage dedicated to this ethos. November’s Tropicália proved that a daylong fest co-headlined by Los Tigres Del Norte and Jhene Aiko not only made money, but it made sense, too.
These kinds of conversations will only get louder as the connections between Latinx bands across the entire SoCal border region begin to solidify. Local Mexican-American artists such as Rudy de Anda often cross to play the bars of La Sexta in Tijuana, and Tijuana’s lo-fi garage kings Policias y Ladrones have been gigging in parts farther north for years, leaving plenty of room in this growing scene for groups such as Los Shadows, a San Diego outfit of border kids who played their first LA show at Redwood Bar in December.
If anything, 2017 used a little bit of sonic chocolate to expose the wild diversity of Latin music and identity to audiences across the country. It’s not just Enrique Iglesias, it’s not just Jenni Rivera, and it’s not just reggaeton. It’s something that’s been bubbling in Will Smith’s Bomba Estéreo cameos and at showcases inside Alex’s Bar, quietly spiking our milk until we don’t need to be spoon-fed anymore, until the lines between what is Latin and what is not are fully blurred, just as they are in our daily lives, on our streets and in so many other slices of border culture.
From our perch in Southern California, there is no new Latin invasion, no Latin explosion and no Latin boom. This is not a trend. People from Latin America already call it American music. Maybe we should, too.
Sarah Bennett is a freelance journalist who has spent nearly a decade covering food, music, craft beer, arts, culture and all sorts of bizarro things that interest her for local, regional and national publications.