By Alex Distefano
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Photo by Matt OttoJesús "El Pelos" Olvera trudges into Lee's Sandwiches one recent Sunday morning bundled in a coat, his eyes puffy but lucid with optimism. He had spent the previous night at South Gate's decrepit Allen Theater hosting an all-ages rockero riot, with his Tenacious D-en-español trio El Chivo Expiatorio (The Scapegoat), spinning the pit with ska-tinged odes to alcoholism, foolish hearts and Bush-bashing. But while Chivo Expiatorio played the Allen partly to introduce their sound to a new audience, Pelos (it means "hairs"—that's what everyone calls him, and you should too) also appeared for more urgent reasons.
"South Gate has a proud all-ages rockero tradition," Pelos says between munches of his morning bánh mì. "People go there and support local acts, and local acts feed off of that and are able to grow and gain fans. That's the blueprint for success—that's what Orange County needs. We need to bring South Gate into Orange County."
You know it's a sad day when county residents trek to the tired industrial towns of southern Los Angeles County for inspiration, but such is the status of local rock en español. Sure, OC is a must-visit for all key Latin alternative acts, and Anaheim nightclub JC Fandango is the Carnegie Hall of rocanrol in the United States. But success in attracting the genre's essential names hasn't translated into a vibrant local network of Latin alternative groups, dives or culture.
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Pelos knows. For the past decade, the 30-year-old Mexico City native has been the Zelig of OC rock en español, participating in and observing the scene at every salient moment as it started from a once-a-year cult to today's Pond and House of Blues sellouts. Pelos moshed at every famous band's first OC appearance—Caifanes, Manu Chao, Café Tacuba, todos—and helped launch publications, radio programs, even record stores that nurtured the rockero in everyone.
But this isn't enough for the Fullerton resident. For the past year, Pelos has organized local all-ages, no-more-than-$5 shows under the name Naranja Asesina (Murderous Orange). Explicitly dedicated to fostering local bands, Pelos hopes to finally provoke into action a county he believes should rank among the top Latin alternative regions in the Hispanic galaxy.
"There's a lot of bands and shows in la naranja," says Olvera. "The problem is they're never promoted, and they're frequently backyard parties thrown together at the last moment. There's no forum—there has to be some sort of forum in order for any sort of scene to truly grow."
Pelos never thought he'd push the most ambitious attempt to organize OC's inchoate Latin alternative movement—all he wanted to do was slam. He immigrated to the United States in 1992 at the age of 19, at first toiling in a Huntington Beach factory that produced wheels for inline skates. Always a music lover, Pelos enrolled in music courses at Golden West College, then bounced around in no-future bands through the mid-'90s while sweating away as a carpet setter. In his free time, he also worked at Samara Records in Santa Ana (one of the first county music stores to stock rock en español releases) and DJ-ed on KUCI-FM 88.9's long-running Radio Rocanrol hour around the time of its debut.
Pelos' recollections of la naranja's primordial rockeroyears belong in the county archives. "Things have changed a bit," he concedes. "In 1994, when you wanted to trade music with people, most people would give you ranchera music and laugh if you tried to give them a rock en español tape. I'd go to concerts with long hair, and people would look at me like [I was] a freak—hence, my nickname. And there were about one or two shows the entire year—and they were in LA. Now, there's about one or two every month here."
He mentions clubs long gone—Baby Rock in Irvine, Anaheim's Prestige Pyramids and El Antro in Santa Ana—and bands like Santa Ana's Aurora Negra and Panteón Azteca, talented groups that ultimately failed to generate followings. And through it all, he patronized venues like the Galaxy, Arrowhead Pond and JC Fandango, which began booking performances around the mid-'90s.
"JC Fandango always puts on one or two local bands as openers for their rockeronights, but they're a different monster," says Pelos. "They primarily care about revenue. There's always been a need for a spot to host only local acts with a goal, not to make money, but to create something."
Attempts to unify county rockeroscame and went as small clubs were quickly swallowed by better-financed LA dives. Pelos didn't do anything to rectify the situation during those years because he worked full-time as a video editor for Telemundo. But when the influential Spanish-language weekly Al Bordehired him as a staff writer in early 2003, Pelos finally found the time and the venue to attack the county's rockeroapathy.
In May, people from across the Southland began gathering at Al Cappuccino's in Fullerton for a series of Pelos-organized monthly concerts known as La Cafepia, featuring big LA-based acts like Las 15 Letras, Los Abandoned and Go Betty Go supporting local groups like Gabriela Penka, Enjambre and Tely. La Cafepia was immediately successful—so successful, in fact, that Al Cappuccino's owner asked Pelos to relocate, since nearby stores complained about the swarms of rancorous kids. Pelos moved up Harbor Boulevard to the new Revolución bar, where he's hosted at least one rockero evening for the past six months. For 2004, Pelos plans to split La Cafepia between Revolución and the Centro Cultural de México in Santa Ana in order to bring some funds to the worthy nonprofit.
Pelos plays lead guitar at these gigs with El Chivo Expiatorio—comprising himself, a brother and a cousin—but mostly assumes the role of MC, introducing no-namers and working the crowds with his self-deprecating chilango wit. He also acts as an advisor to neophytes from other dormant Latin alternative areas.
"Whenever we have shows here, we'll get people from San Bernardino, Riverside, even Sacramento, who come. I ask them, 'Why did you drive all the way out here?' And they say the same thing we say here: 'It's because there's nothing out there.' It's the same problem everywhere.
"Don't make me out to be that much of a proselytizer," he suddenly blurts. "I still want my band to succeed and play at all the shows I organize. But in order for us to succeed, we need everyone to succeed."
Pelos sighs mournfully, the type of sigh one exhales when realizing the necessity and absurdity of love. "I'm in love with Orange County rock en español, although it's like an abusive relationship. I stay here because I sense that there is amazing potential here and that it could be great. But you know what's funny? That's what I thought 10 years ago. The scene is an ingrate—it never supports anyone, just serves itself. But that's why you want to improve it all the time. I'll always have hope."
El Chivo Expiatorio performs with Las 15 Letras at JC Fandango, 1086 N. State College Blvd., Anaheim, (714) 758-9998. www.jcf.com. Thurs., Jan. 15, 8 p.m. $8. 16+.