‘Aztlan,’ Latin FM’s cool alternative
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.”
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.
In 1995, Torres finally got the green light to launch “Travel Tips for Aztlan” (the name refers to the Aztecs’ legendary ancestral home) from then-KPFK program director Pamela Burton. For many young Chicano musicians listening in, the program validated their aspirations. “What Mark presented was a real alternative, something that was not given a chance,” said Quetzal Flores of the Chicano progressive-rock band Quetzal. “It wasn’t just the Chicano community and the rock en espanol community. He was open to everybody.”
Because most of these emerging bands weren’t yet being played by radio stations or signed to record labels, Torres decided to give them a showcase by booking them to perform live on his show. He used his own microphones and sound-mixing console that he’d haul in from home.
“People ended up calling it rock en espanol, but this was before that term was even around,” he said, ticking off such groups as Ozomatli, Los Olvidados and Maria Fatal. Among his on-air guests around that time was Colombia’s Juanes -- not yet the Colombian pop superstar who performed at this year’s NBA All-Star Game, but at the time a guitar player with the metal band Ekhymosis.
Torres continued to expand his show’s vision of what alternative Latin music could be, introducing listeners to scores of new artists and helping some to get on stage in L.A., although not at the velvet-rope venues. “We weren’t going to wait for the Sunset pay-to-play clubs to invite us,” he said.
The show’s lineage
Mariluz Gonzalez is Torres’ third co-host, following Anjanette Gonzalez (no relation) and Mari G. (who continues to co-host occasionally). Rather than relying on market surveys, in the manner of corporate radio chains, Torres and Gonzalez put together their playlists based on their own tastes, friends’ recommendations, field research at local bars and periodic scavenger hunts at Amoeba Records. Gonzalez also is constantly trolling the Internet in search of promising new bands from Santa Ana to Patagonia.
“Somebody in the industry asked me how do I get my music,” said Gonzalez. Her answer is that, since graduating from UCLA, where she started booking Latin bands, she has paid her dues by managing the Latin ska outfit Quince Letras; working for several record labels (and starting one of her own, SourPop Records); befriending artists on both sides of the border; sticking by them through career ups and downs (and accompanying them on epic pub crawls); sifting through obscure CDs at Mexico City’s sprawling El Chopo flea market in search of hidden gems; and logging hundreds of bus and air miles shuttling between Mexico and the Pacoima home that she shares with her parents.
“I had to work my way in to get la confianza and the trust,” Gonzalez said. Mentioning a rival at a competing station, she continued: “He doesn’t have the music that I have because he doesn’t live the life that I live.”
While Torres said he doesn’t know how much longer he’ll keep doing the show, his dream is to pass it on to people “who don’t see their musical tastes represented,” the kind of people that he and his friends were many years ago. “My grandparents were farmworkers,” he said. “We didn’t know anybody in the media, we didn’t know anybody in television or radio. There was no exposure to that. So I would love to expose youngsters, young students or anybody, really, to what the medium’s all about, so that they might have an opportunity.”