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Photos: Exhibit documents 20 years of Latin Alternative music

A photo exhibit closing in Santa Ana this weekend documents two decades of a major music movement variously known as Rock en Español, Latin rock and Latin alternative.

The Southland is home to a lot of Spanish speakers, but until the late 1980s there wasn’t much in the way of Spanish-language rock.

“I think the turning point was a concert by Caifanes in ‘89, then a few months later Soda Stereo, which was another of the biggest bands in Latin America, came to play in the Palladium in Hollywood,” said Emilio Morales.

He and other Spanish-speaking immigrants were hungry for the music. The guitar player moved to L.A. from Mexico City to study graphic design. With so few positive images of Latinos in U.S. media, Morales said, seeing creative, cool, Mexican rockers - like Caifanes - on stage motivated him and others to follow their lead.

“Many local bands formed after attending that concert because you met, ‘Oh, I play base, oh you play drums, or I play guitars, so let’s get together,’” he said.

A local music movement was born. With no Internet to find out about, listen to, or publicize concerts large and small, Morales started the fanzine La Banda Elastica,“The Rubber band,” in L.A. 20 years ago.

He used it to publicize his band, Maria Fatal. La Banda Elastica packed album reviews and interviews next to portraits of the bands. Many of these photos helped define the image of the Rock en Español or Latin Alternative movement. About 50 photos from the magazine’s archives and by other concert photographers are on display at the Orange County Center for Contemporary Arts in Santa Ana. The exhibit is a collaboration between the magazine and the arts organization SolArt. The exhibit’s most striking image fills an entire wall.

“This is Roco from Maldita Vecindad. This photo was taken at the Universal Ampitheater in 1994,” said Maria Madrial describing the photo she took of the lead singer of the Mexico City-based band. Roco – long stringy hair falling onto his shirtless shoulders - holds his arms out in front of a mic and looks past the photographer to a loving audience.

“He’s in his own trance. He’s just himself. I almost want to say he’s in zen. He’s there singing and being who he is. And that energy, I hope I was able to capture it with this image,” she said.

That concert was historic because Rock en Español bands hadn’t filled such a large L.A. venue before - and because U.S. rockers such as Adrian Belew and Redd Kross alternated with Maldita Vecindad’s blend of ska, punk, and traditional Mexican music.

Madrigal joined La Banda Elastica early on. Working class Mexican immigrant parents brought her up in San Jose and Chicago. She spoke little Spanish.

Shooting for La Banda Elastica convinced her that L.A. was an important crossroads for Latin American rock bands and a fertile ground for a local Latin alternative scene.

Emilio Morales said that local bands like Pastilla, from Pomona, signaled a major shift in Latin Alternative in the late 1990s.

“At the beginning, in the first clubs, everyone spoke Spanish, everyone was from Colombia, Argentina, Mexico City, whatever. Right now if you go to a club, everyone’s from here, everyone speaks English, just a few people who speak Spanish,” he said.

The first generation of Rock en Español bands, Maldita Vecindad, Café Tacuba, Caifanes, proudly sang in Spanish and used their music to explore their national identity.

Maria Madrigal points to a photo she took of Mexico-born, U.S.-raised singer Teresa Suarez, better known as Teri Gender Bender. Madrigal says she represents a new generation of bilingual, Latin alternative artists who are equally comfortable in Mexico City, LA or Paris.

“This photograph was taken in Austin, Texas during South by Southwest. What’s really interesting here is that, I did a series of photographs with her and then we did, she did a live acoustic song for us and so she was singing and it was really hot that day, so she started singing and screaming and stuff, and she’s like, it’s so hot, what she did, she took off the guitar. You see how it’s in the lake, the lake in Austin. She just jumped in the water,” she said.

That photograph of the scowling Teri Gender Bender and dozens others of LA and Latin American musicians are on display at the Orange County Center for Contemporary Arts. The exhibit closes tomorrow night with a live music party.