By: Ivan Fernandez
Rene Contreras is no stranger to adversity. For the fourth year in a row, the short, skinny, curly-haired Chicano from Pomona will present the Viva! Pomona festival this summer. The two-day festival will bring nearly 50 artists to the Glass House, a lighthouse for the area's music scene, for an all-day, all-ages affair packed with national and international talent of the independent and small label variety.
The most difficult aspect in running and curating Viva! Pomona has nothing to do with logistics, although that remains a nightmare. Contreras has grown accustomed to the grind of curating the festival in DIY fashion with nothing but help from his closest friends. His toughest task has been explaining to the world at large how Viva! Pomona is a reflection of today's multicultural world, as well as a force with which to bridge Southern California's culturally and ethnically diverse communities.
"It's hard to market the show," admits Contreras over the phone. "It's frustrating going to shows at the Echo to promote the festival and being told, 'Oh, you're having a Latin show!' No, it's not only a Latin show!"
Contreras came up with the idea of Viva! Pomona a few years ago during a discussion about music over tacos with a group of friends. They believed that their hometown of Pomona, an island unto itself at the edge of the Los Angeles/San Bernardino county line, had a vibrant music and arts scene of its own worthy of being celebrated.
Since its inception, the focus has been on independent artists from Los Angeles, the Inland Empire, and Orange and San Diego counties, with a bit of national and foreign talent to round things out. The festival's biggest draw since 2014, however, has become its mix of local and foreign Latino/Spanish-language artists, who account for nearly half of this year's lineup.
Latino artists from Long Beach, San Diego, South Central Los Angeles, and San Bernardino will perform alongside their peers from San Jose (Costa Rica), Tijuana, Santiago (Chile), and San Juan (Puerto Rico), to name a few.
The genres included are as diverse as the number of passports represented in the festival. There's indie pop-rock courtesy of Dënver and Las Robertas, the tropical cumbia of Quitapenas, cholo-goth duo Prayers, rapper Antwon, DJ/producers Maria y Jose and DJ Nombre Apellido, and plenty of different styles of rock courtesy of Rudy De Anda, Thee Commons, Generacion Suicida, Ruido Rosa, Mint Field, Death Lens, Johnny Otis Davila, Policias y Ladrones, and Catalonian/Spanish shoegaze outfit Triangulo de Amor Bizarro.
On the flip side of the bill are their non-Latino peers, also in as many genres: Froth, Ice Age, La Sera, Girls' Christopher Owens, Joe McFly, The Wild Reeds, Nic Hessler, The Gooch Palms, Shady Francos, The Two Tens … the list goes on.
Critics and haters can argue that the festival's split personality of English- and Spanish-language artists is its greatest weakness. Contreras sees it as its greatest strength, despite having to repeatedly explain to Latinos and non-Latinos alike why he's intermingling a group such as Dënver with The Wild Reeds.
"Talking with people who like these bands that play in Spanish, [they] are like 'Why are you having them play with gringo bands?'" Contreras admits. "I understand that, but I also think that these bands should play with bands who aren't Latino so they can open their audiences and open their careers."
Contreras, the son of Mexican immigrants, has spent his entire life navigating his U.S. and Mexican cultures. He wants Viva! Pomona to reflect his appreciation for both as a Mexican-American, as well as provide an avenue for Latino artists to reach out to an audience they normally wouldn't have access to.
Contreras uses Mac DeMarco as an example. The Canadian indie-rock artist can sell out shows in Latin American countries, but a DeMarco-style artist from Colombia or Argentina wouldn't have the same success in the U.S. Contreras wants Viva! Pomona to be the festival that gives small-label/independent artists from Latin America their first foot in the door to success in America, without waiting on a call-up from larger, Latino-oriented festivals such as the Reventon Super Estrella, Supersonico, LAMC, or Latino-themed showcases at SXSW.
"In essence, I feel like we're rewriting the music industry because these bands never play together," he says. "They get sectioned off and we're uniting everyone."
Last year's Viva! Pomona festival was his first, true attempt towards this goal. The diverse crowd in and around the Glass House that weekend was testament to the fact that Contreras had clearly grasped onto something the community wanted. He even took a shot at replicating that success in L.A. with the smaller scale Viva! El Ley showcase earlier this year.
"I want it to grow into something bigger," he continues, "while at the same time keeping the same concept: bringing emerging artists from different places around the world, but focusing on bands from Latin America."
It's not an impossible feat to accomplish. Sean Carlson achieved something similar with the Fuck Yeah Festival, having graduated from small venues in Echo Park with relatively unknown artists to the summertime juggernaut now known as FYF. Maybe one day, Contreras will be able to host a Viva event on a similar scale — or throw Viva festivals all over Southern California. Until then, Viva! Pomona remains an impressive feat of multicultural, bilingual booking for fans of indie music across all styles and genres.
Viva! Pomona takes place Saturday, July 18 and Sunday, July 19 as the Glass House.