It was low 30s outside, unseasonably cold for an April night in Indy. But it was hot as hell inside the club. The air was thick with sweat from the thousands of bodies packed together. I struggled to carve out a few square inches of my own.
We were all there for the headliner. With a catalog of music stretching back over 40 years, they had the status of legends. They'd made a career singing songs that celebrate the exploits of outlaws and anti-heroes. They'd built their reputation making music that opposed the corrosive power of U.S. political propaganda. Through their songs, they had questioned the very concept of what it means to be called an American.
I stood on my toes and craned my neck to scan the place, shocked by the size of the crowd, endless rows of humanity in every direction. I knew they had a huge underground following in Indy, but I never expected this kind of turnout. Despite their popularity, news of the concert received little or no attention in the local press. Yet they'd sold out the massive venue, and left a line of anxious fans waiting outside without a ticket.
Who am I talking about? A reunion show by The Clash, possibly Fugazi, or maybe even Black Flag? Not even close.
The group in question is Los Tigres Del Norte, the accordion-wielding icons of Mexico's norteño music. And the club is El Venue. Located in an anonymous strip-mall off of Lafayette Road, El Venue inhabits the shell of a big box retail space that formerly housed a Value City.
That massive crowd of music fans can be found every week on Lafayette Road, where a cluster of Latin music venues have transformed the area into what could arguably be called the live music capital of Indianapolis.
For most Indy residents, the Lafayette Square area is generally known for one of two reasons. Some associate the neighborhood with the economic downturn that sparked many retailers to flee, leaving trails of vacant storefronts in their wake. Others think of the myriad international eateries and groceries that earned this section of town the title of International Marketplace.
But what few Hoosiers realize is that the area doesn't truly come to life until the sun has set and all the shops have closed. That's when vast empty parking lots become oceans of cars as Latin American music fans from across Central Indiana descend on Lafayette Road to catch performances by some of the biggest stars in international music. Taco trucks roll in to peddle their wares. And that joy, that kinetic energy that accompanies huge, sell-out shows doesn't dissipate until the wee hours.
One of the most important destinations for live music on Lafayette Road is Chispas Discotheque. Located in a strip mall directly across the street from Lafayette Square, Chispas has set a new standard for Westside clubs as its ambitious booking practices bring in a steady rotation of Latin music's hottest acts.
"We bring all kinds of music to Chispas: hip-hop and rock en español, bachata, salsa, cumbia, everything that is Latino," Chispas owner and manager Miguel Cárdenas says when we speak on the phone. "We always try to feature whatever is being listened to at the moment. So, if banda groups are popular with the people, we bring in bandas."
The club has featured performances by narcocorrido superstar Gerardo Ortiz, norteño legends Los Tucanes de Tijuana, banda pioneers La Arrolladora Banda el Limón and dozens of other stars form Mexico's regional music scene. In addition to these more traditional styles, the club has also featured everything from Mexican rappers Akwid to Spanish heavy metal, and the Mexican EDM sound of tribal.
"I find it very important to bring acts from Mexico," Cárdenas says. "People come with great excitement to see these acts. Perhaps that's where they last saw them, or maybe they never got to see them there at all and never will get to see them in Mexico due to their immigration status. So this is a way for them to reconnect with the culture. It's like we're bringing them back to their hometown though the music."
Cárdenas has been living in Indiana for almost 20 years, after moving here from Los Angeles.
"I lived in Logansport when I arrived. I was a supervisor for a company called Tyson Foods for about eight years," he says. "Then I moved to Frankfort and bought a place there. In Frankfort I managed soccer teams, and I also put on events, which is how I got started in music. So after that I decided to some to Indianapolis and see what I could do here."
"Chispas opened three years ago and we've been doing live events for the past two," Cárdenas recalled. "We started bringing in more and more groups, and each time we tried to make the shows bigger and better."
So, how big can Chispas get?
"I haven't really thought about that," he says, a bit wearily. "It is difficult to run an operation like this. It's financially difficult. Rent is expensive. Everything is expensive. You'd need to have at least two big events each month in order to keep up with the expenses. It's not an enterprise you pursue to make money. Partly because of competition. There's a lot of competition."
Chispas DJ and Radio Latina personality Vicente Mix agrees with Cárdenas' assessment. Mix came to Indianapolis around 2003, after beginning his DJ career in Mexico. Mix told me that although Chispas attracts over 2,000 visitors on a good night, the exorbitant booking rates of the acts the club hires makes it hard to turn a profit.
"We usually work with groups that charge around $60,000," Mix says, adding it's difficult to compete with a larger facility like El Venue that can afford to work with bigger acts that charge as much as $300,000 per show.
"Somos Mas Americanos"
There must have been over 5,000 people in attendance at the Los Tigres Del Norte performance I witnessed at El Venue in April. The size of the crowd at El Venue was unusually large that night, and their enthusiasm was also remarkably high.
Los Tigres are beloved for their songs celebrating the plight of Mexico's working class. The crowd at El Venue erupted with howls of approval for anthems like "Somos Mas Americanos" ("We're More American") after immediately recognizing the opening notes. Here's a few translated lines:
A thousand times they have shouted at me,
'Go home, you don't belong here,'
Let me remind the Gringo,
I didn't cross the border, the border crossed me,
America was born free — man divided her
If history does not lie,
A powerful nation was seated here in glory,
Composed of valiant warriors,
Indians of two continents mingled with Spaniards,
And if we go by the centuries,
We are more American than any son of the Anglo-Saxon...
I am of Indian blood, I am Latino, I am Mestizo...
Though it pains you to hear,
We are more American than every last one of the Gringos"
"While some of the music you'll hear on the Westside is built on your typical love stories, I think it's important to note that there's also a strong sense of social justice too," local musician Amber Martinez tells me. Martinez is a member of Meztli-Cultural and also serves as director of the Anderson Ballet Folklorico. "A lot of this music was born from an oral tradition. Originally, it was more musical poetry, so to speak. It was a way to spread messages regarding political propaganda, oppression and historical events."
While Martinez's folk-based music projects aren't regularly featured in the clubs, she and her husband Esteban are fans of the scene. They came to Indianapolis five years ago.
"We started Meztli-Cultural de Indianapolis to promote Mexican folk art and preserve cultural traditions, including music," she tells me. I'll note here that Martinez is equipped with an impressive historical knowledge of Mexico's vast regional music scene.
I ask Martinez if she felt the Lafayette Road music venues offered a representative sample of Latin American music styles.
"It goes in cycles. Banda and corrido music probably get the most consistent play. But you also have a heavy trend of reggaeton, and there's salsa too. The one genre that gets the least amount of play in my opinion is cumbia. Cumbia has a very interesting history mixing indigenous and African cultures. I think as popular as cumbia is, it gets the least amount of play in the club scene."
She agrees with Cárdenas' statements regarding the importance of an artistic connection to the homelands of Indy's immigrant communities.
"What ends up happening with younger generations who are born and raised here, they live a dual lifestyle," Martinez says. "They're just as into performers from the United States as they are artists from the Latin American scene. I think this music scene helps to give them a sense of identity. It allows them to stay connected to their roots."
This is a sentiment I find echoed by many, including local music fan Cynthia Perez. For several years, Perez was an on-air talent for Radio Latina, and her father managed the now-defunct West Washington Street club El Volkan.
"What I've noticed in my family with cousins and uncles, when they were back in Mexico they couldn't afford to go see some of their favorite bands," she says. "Now they can afford it, and it's exciting for them to go see bands they grew up listening to. It reminds them of being back home. It brings back good memories."
Perez thinks these massively successful shows could be a bridge between the Latin American community and other communities in Indianapolis.
"Right now you don't see a lot of diversity in the audience at shows," she says. "But if someone enjoys listening to music from different cultures I think it's worth their time to check out these concerts, to learn about the music, and enjoy an experience outside of what they might be used to."
And the club owners are certainly open to all music fans.
"We welcome everyone at Chispas, no matter their ethnicity or race," Cárdenas says. " Often times there will be whites and African-Americans at the shows. It is for whoever enjoys the music. We treat everyone the same."
The future: an analysis
There's a lot of public handwringing over how to solve the perceived problems of the Lafayette Square area. But as city officials and arts administrators stumble to find meaningful answers for the area, the city's immigrant population is successfully solving the neighborhood's problems on their own terms.
In my opinion, the development of the Lafayette Road music scene over the last few years is the final step in solidifying this neighborhood's reputation as the city's most fully realized cultural district. It's time to stop referencing this neighborhood as an area in crisis. Instead we should be asking how we can help empower the creative vision of the immigrant entrepreneurs.
With its endless vistas of grey concrete, Lafayette Road certainly isn't much to look at. But what it lacks in picturesque floral and fauna is accounted for in other forms of natural beauty. Most notably, the warm smiles and joyful atmosphere so freely shared within the neighborhood's festive music celebrations.
From Washington Street to Lafayette Road Latin American immigrants have puled off one of the most impressive city revitalization programs I've witnessed here in my lifetime. Just imagine what they could do with the full support of the city behind them.
As I concluded my interview with Cynthia Perez, she mentioned that she'd traveled to Chicago in 2012 to see iconic Mexican ranchera singer Vicente Fernández perform at the Allstate Arena. I asked Perez if she thought there'd ever be a day where Latin music fans in Indy could regularly sell-out facilities like Lucas Oil stadium. Perez cracked a smile, her eyes lit up as she let out a laugh. "I hope I live long enough to see that happen."
I think it's important to share with readers the difficulty I encountered securing interviews for this story. Many of the Latinos I spoke with in the music scene were so disgusted with portrayals of their culture in the English language media that they were suspicious of my motives, and reluctant to speak and share their insights. It's a sad comment on the state of racial relations in our city that such a deep wedge of suspicion has been driven between our communities. I hope that by honoring the enormous contributions Latinos are making to the city's arts scene we can begin to break down the walls of mistrust that have left us divided for so long. n
Special thanks to Gerardo Ruiz Tovar, Artur Silva, Claudia Belen Lopez, DJ Vicente Mix and Ted Somerville, Pedro Lara.
[Music] DJs + Dancing