John Frías says he was a clueless college kid when he first got the idea to bring popular Latin rock bands to the U.S. in the mid-1990s.
The son of immigrants from northern Mexico, he had watched his father build a music empire out of a small nightclub in southeast L.A., turning monthly concerts with singers like Joan Sebastian and Juan Gabriel into the first and largest Latin entertainment company in the country.
But while his dad helped create the million-dollar market for traditional Mexican music and Spanish-language adult contemporary that exists today, the younger Frías was more interested in what young Latinos his own age were listening to: then-underground genres like rock, punk, metal and ska.
“There was no outlet for rock music in Spanish, no radio stations or venues that would play it,” Frías remembers of the mid-1990s when the UCLA grad decided to skip law school to instead build what would become Frías Entertainment, his own promotion and management empire. “I knew Latin events were phenomenal in other genres, but rock was very different. At the time, I was getting to know bands like La Ley and Caifanes, Enanitos Verdes and Hombres G. I had no idea if there was even an audience for them here, but I poured my whole life into finding out.”
Hundreds of artists and thousands of Stateside concerts later, Frías Entertainment is one of the original promulgators of Latin rock in America. Five years ago – after nearly two decades of booking everything from pop-leaning acts like Café Tacvba and Kinky to hard rock and metal like Mago de Oz and Molotov – Frías did something else revolutionary. He started La Tocada Fest, the country’s first multi-stage outdoor music festival dedicated to rock en español, which has drawn an estimated 15,000 attendees to Orange County each year.
The festival returns Saturday with a milestone move to the L.A. State Historic Park, where headliners like Mon Laferte and Mexico City ska pioneers Panteón Rococó will play alongside up-and-coming alternative artists on several stages spread across the newly renovated park.
“La Tocada has always done something different with Latin music in the U.S.,” says Panteón Rococó saxophonist Missael Oseguera, who also played the first La Tocada Fest (“La Tocada” means, roughly, “the musicians” in Spanish).
“They are inclusive of different kinds of music, not just the commercial music that’s on the radio. It’s a rare festival where you can hear real bands that are underground and not easy to find…the kinds of bands that don’t usually get asked to play the big festivals.”
The first La Tocada Fest, in 2014, declared itself something different. With four heavy metal bands, a blues rock outfit, a rap rock group and Panteón Rococó (itself a 10-member punk-ska hurricane), the day-long event brought unheard-of amounts of head-banging and mosh pits to three stages at The Observatory in Santa Ana.
As far as anticipation and frenzy goes, it was the When We Were Young Fest for SoCal’s rockeros, born out of a fervor for nostalgia and cultural connection that over the last few years has manifested as a larger homegrown Latin alternative movement, seen everywhere from the long-running grassroots Viva! Pomona Fest to the stacked Sonora Stage at Coachella to last year’s sold-out Tropicalia festival.
Since it began, though, La Tocada has not pursued local bands for its lineup (yet!) in an effort to give opportunities to independent artists from Latin America who may not otherwise get to play here.
“It’s always so fun to see people go from stage to stage checking out all the music, especially on the smaller stages where there are bands people maybe follow on social media but haven’t had a chance to see them live yet because they’re from another country,” Frías says. “One of the most exciting elements of La Tocada has been focusing on newer acts that we usually can’t usually afford to fly out here. People always know there are going to be talented artists on the small stages too.”
Another secret to La Tocada’s success has been its ability to draw audiences from outside the core Mexican-American fan base. Most of the bands on each year’s lineup come from Mexico and all of them perform in Spanish. And yet, like at Tropicalia, Viva! Pomona and other Latin tinged festivals, audiences are heavily mixed; attendees not only come from other Latin-American countries, but many are not even Latino and don’t speak Spanish at all.
This is refreshing for some of the artists, who say that touring in other countries is a reminder that music is a universal language and that the arbitrary boundaries the Latin entertainment industry tries to draw around their sounds are entirely arbitrary.
“In Mexico, the radio tries to separate everybody. They say that you can’t like pop music if you’re a rocker or you can’t like rock if you listen to pop,” Oseguera says. “That’s something the people in America don’t have. In U.S. they like the music they like and it doesn’t matter if you’re into ska or punk or pop or everything. They just enjoy music and La Tocada is a festival for that idea.”
As other festivals begin to tap into the potential of bringing hard-rock musicians from Latin America to play here — and see no fear in mixing sounds as disparate as Mon Laferte and Maldita Vecinidad on the same lineup – La Tocada, and Frías, continue to find ways to break new ground.
After over 40 years of following Latin music trends in the U.S., first through his father’s focus on newly arrived agricultural workers and now with concerts that cater to their second and even third-generation children, the fifth iteration of La Tocada will land almost where it should have been in the first place. This year’s venue is only a few blocks away from the historic Spanish pueblo that eventually grew into modern-day Los Angeles, a city that anchors a region home to more Latinos than anywhere else in the country.
“This year’s going to be special since it’s the first time a Latin rock show of this size is happening in L.A. proper,” Frías says. “I can’t think of anything better than having all these Latin rock bands finally playing in the heart of L.A.”
La Tocada Fest at L.A. State Historic Park, Saturday, Aug. 4. For tickets, and full info, click here.
Sarah Bennett is a freelance journalist who has spent nearly a decade covering food, music, craft beer, arts, culture and all sorts of bizarro things that interest her for local, regional and national publications.