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'Travel Tips for Aztlan' rides cutting-edge of Latin radio

KPFK-FM's Mark Torres and Mariluz González co-host the Saturday night show, which features new music and interviews instead of the silliness and bland pop all too common.

May 24, 2009|Reed Johnson

These are a few things that you won't hear on "Travel Tips for Aztlan," the Saturday-night show of cutting-edge Latin American and Latino music hosted by Mark Torres and Mariluz Gonzalez on KPFK-FM (90.7): Goofy shtick. Canned repartee. Generic Spanish-language pop of the sort that clogs the commercial airwaves and, after the umpteenth rotation, can make enlightened rock en espanol fans reach for the mescal bottle.

"Unfortunately, Latin radio is 10 years behind. Stop playing Juanes already," said Torres, who started "Travel Tips" 14 years ago and has made it the L.A. region's longest-running Latin alternative-rock program.

These are a few things that you will hear on "Travel Tips" -- weeks, if not months, before they're likely to surface elsewhere on Southern California radio: Los Odio's rave-up cover of the old Cheap Trick hit "I Want You to Want Me," from the soundtrack to "Rudo y Cursi," the just-released feature film starring Diego Luna and Gael Garcia Bernal. New tunes from the Academy Award-winning Uruguayan singer-songwriter Jorge Drexler, and the ingratiatingly cute, bilingual Mexico City band Hello Seahorse!

That's in addition to live interviews with a Spanish female hip-hopper and an up-and-coming San Bernardino graphic designer, Christian Vidaurrazaga, whose witty creations cross-stitch classic Mexican iconography (eagles, skeletons) with irreverent attitude.

Plus smart but low-key commentary and a palpable sense of community.

Of course, metropolitan Los Angeles, home to America's largest Spanish-speaking population, has no dearth of commercial Latin-music radio stations. What it lacks in number are broadcast outlets that sample the teeming galaxy of Latin sounds, from Tijuana electronica and East L.A. Chicano rock to Argentine ska and the Basque punk-reggae of Manu Chao. Only one other local station, KCRW-FM (89.9), plays any such mix on a regular basis.

"Torres & Gonzalez" might not have the brand-name ring of KROQ's Kevin and Bean, or command the mass following of L.A.'s top Latin radio talk-show hosts such as El Cucuy. But Torres, 47, the L.A.-born grandson of Chihuahua and Durango immigrants, and Gonzalez, 39, a Guadalajara native who joined the program as co-host last summer, bring a rare combination of different but complementary musical sensibilities and cultural backgrounds to their work.

The duo's on-air partnership reflects the increasingly symbiotic tie between Chicano music, made by U.S. natives of Mexican descent (Torres' specialty), and the contemporary musical scenes in places like Monterrey, Mexico; Buenos Aires and the U.S.-Mexican borderlands (Gonzalez's forte). "Mark has all the experience of the radio, the culture, he knows a lot about politics and issues," Gonzalez said during a recent lunch interview. "So he's got that like really good. And I'm more like the kind of crazy, alter-music" person.

"The 'wacky sidekick?' " Torres chimes in, joking. "My perspective comes from the Chicano music scene, and although I've had lots of Spanish-speaking groups on my show, I think Mariluz is a great ambassador, because Spanish for her is a first language."

Rock on

Gonzalez said her awareness that Latinos could rock out just as hard as Anglos came when she was a nerdy junior high school student. "It happened one day while watching Soda Stereo's "Cuando Pase El Temblor" and Los Prisioneros' "Sexo" on MTV. "I was like, 'What's going on -- they sound like the Cure, but they speak in Spanish.' And I felt like I can relate more, because it was Spanish."

Torres' path was different. Growing up in Los Angeles, he developed an intimacy with the local music environment and an encyclopedic knowledge of East L.A. cultural history. He first glimpsed bilingual, bicultural L.A. at such legendary haunts as the Troy Cafe, co-founded by Sean Carrillo and Beck's mother, Bibbe Hansen, where a swirling, recombinant mix of artists and activists came to drink strong coffee and plot cultural uprisings.

"You'd see bands perform there," Torres said. "And I was like, 'Oh my God, there's so much talent here, let's see if we can squeeze 'em on KPFK.' I came up with a proposal in 1990, and it took me five years to get a program director who would eventually realize that there was a Latin audience in Los Angeles."

Torres' connection with KPFK began in 1989, when he started volunteering as a board operator at the L.A. affiliate of the politically left-leaning Pacifica Radio, the nation's oldest public radio network. He now works as a senior producer in Pacifica's KPFK-based national archives, helping to convert its huge library of tape recordings to digital and package them into new programming.

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