Sunday's Fiesta Broadway was billed as the largest free Cinco de Mayo celebration in the nation. With an estimated half-million people crowding 36 blocks of downtown, dancing to 55 mini-concerts on six stages, and, of course, waiting for hours in line to scoop freebies from a seemingly endless procession of sponsor booths (Toothpaste, anyone? Cereal? Pens?), it certainly had the feel of the largest such thing.
Hard to believe, standing in the hot sun amid the pulsating crowds, that 11 years ago many in this city laughed at Fiesta's founders, Larry Gonzalez and Peter Bellas, when they proposed a festival for Los Angeles not unlike Miami's famed Calle Ocho.
At a time when Miami is making headlines for heated political protests, the peacefulness, scale and musical diversity of Fiesta Broadway seemed to take on greater importance. Earlier this year, the National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences surprised the Latin music industry when it chose Los Angeles as home for the inaugural Latin Grammy Awards show, in part because the politics in Miami made holding the show there impossible.
The festival's success this year seemed to underscore the emergence of Los Angeles as the nation's Latino cultural power hub. And if cultural movements indeed precede political movements, as many sociologists believe, Fiesta Broadway was a symbol of America's Latino power center moving further from Cuban exiles over the age of 50 and closer to Mexican Americans under the age of 30.
This year's Fiesta Broadway featured more rock, pop and tropical bands than ever before, leaving behind the image of Cinco de Mayo as strictly mariachi, and emphasizing the emergence of a Pan-Latino American culture. It also demonstrated the emergence of a strong local Latin youth culture as comfortable with electric guitars and the Internet as ranchera songs and tequila.
Abraham Contreras, who is in charge of booking the bands for Fiesta Broadway, said this year he was moved by the success of Latino pop artists in the English market, and wanted to feature a wider variety of artists than in the past. "This is not just an event for Mexicans," he said. "We want to show our Mexican culture, but it's also an event for the whole community." Contreras said he sees increasing interest among Latinos in Los Angeles in pop, rock and merengue.
Mexican pop rock trio Moenia drew a large crowd of fans to its two afternoon performances. Hortencia Navarro, 23, waited hours for an autograph, weeping when she was unable to get one. "I love them," she said. "So does my mother-in-law. I like how they sing. It's modern."
Moenia's lead singer, Alfonso Pichardo, said backstage after the show that he has noticed an increased interest in rock among American Latinos across the nation, as well as throughout Latin America, and says it has to do with the Internet and increasing global access to all types of music.
Moenia's brief show was followed by a set by a Mexican norteno act, Grupo Control, featuring two agile dancers who put a hip-hop spin on the cumbia sounds of the group. This type of dancing is not often seen in norteno stage shows, and further represents the melding of various youth cultures in the U.S. Southwest and Mexico.
"We're mixing it up," said Control's lead singer, Sergio Degollado. "We may sound traditional, but we don't look traditional."
Fans at the stage seemed to appreciate both types of music, in a display of tolerance almost unimaginable in, say Miami. "There's room for everyone," said Jose Garcia, 30, who stood in his black jeans and cowboy hat near Navarro, in her cargo pants and tank top. "I like banda the most, but that doesn't mean they should only have banda here."
Fiesta Broadway's Bellas said the goal of Fiesta organizers this year was to appeal to a wide variety of Latin music fans. "This is the first year we've really focused on rock and pop, because that's what people want," he said.