We grew up listening to Smashing Pumpkins and Café Tacuba. Our parents liked Simon and Garfunkel and Jose Alfredo Jimenez. For generations, Latinos have been familiar with English language songs, yet most Euro-Americans could hardly name a Hispanic genre, let alone a particular singer or band.
A lot can be learned about a culture from its musical history and there are connections to be discovered between seemingly distant worlds, such as the German polka origins of regional Mexican music. But it is not necessary to go beyond just listening to a tune to be transported to its place of origin, experience its essence, to feel its heartbeat.
Several Salem nightclubs serve as the perfect remedy for the nostalgia felt by thousands of Salem residents of Hispanic origin or descent, and may offer a good way for non-Hispanics to gain a better understanding of their neighbors’ traditions.
La Brisa, 2138 Lancaster Dr. N.E., is a small location featuring live Latin rock Thursday nights and live regional Mexican music Saturdays and Sundays. Friday nights, a DJ plays diverse styles including salsa and cumbia, a traditional Colombian rhythm of Afro-Native origins whose dance is a depiction of courtship between African slaves brought to South America. La Brisa’s laid back atmosphere has attracted many customers and it has been a financial success, says owner Alfredo Mendez.
Not long after arriving on a Friday, La Brisa first timer Leona Howell, sitting at the bar with her girlfriend, gave her approval, “People are really friendly here, the service is great, and you don’t have to get all dressed up.”
Carlos Maciel discovered that he doesn’t even have to bring a dance partner, “Here, you can always find someone to dance with.”
At Miguel’s Sports Bar at 1410 Lancaster Dr. N.E., several local bands are competing to win a duranguense contest. While Duranguense means “from Durango, (Mexico),” this genre is native to Chicago. Its lyrics revolve around working in the U.S. and missing Durango. It is difficult to distinguish between Duranguense and Norteña, as they are very close instrumentally and in their dances. Generally, men wear cowboy boots and hats to attend these events and the dance literally imitates horseback riding, a throwback to the early 1800s when Mexican cowboys roamed the frontier, long before their Anglo counterparts.
But Duranguense and norteña music are a more modern phenomenon than the traditional Mexican rancheras (literally “from the ranch”). Beautifully melodic, relying on violins, guitars and trumpets, Rancheras, played by mariachis (from the French marriage because Rancheras are sang at weddings), are without a doubt a Mexican treasure admired by millions in the Latin world.
Mariachi music is not meant for dancing, but for listening and singing along. On Sunday nights, Miguel’s hosts the musical group Mariachi Azteca de Oro, one of only a handful of Mariachi bands in Oregon. Band member Félix Martinez has been a musician for over 50 years, and he has played along celebrities such as Vicente Fernández.
Understanding the importance of lyrics of a Ranchera, Martinez keeps a repertoire of English lyrics, “If there are people in the audience that don’t understand any Spanish, we sing for them in English.”
After witnessing the show, customer Noel Suarez commented, “It’s really nice to be able to relax and listen to live music while you eat good food,” he said. “It’s totally worth it.”
There are a few other bars that cater to Hispanics. El Flamingo, 3260 Portland Rd. N.E., is an 18-and-over dance club featuring music that appeals to the younger crowds. They include music in English as well as reggeton (Latin hip hop). The place gets pretty crowded, especially on Fridays. People drive to Salem from Corvallis, Portland, Eugene and Vancouver just to come to El Flamingo.
“People from all backgrounds are welcome to come, and should come with confidence. It’s a fun place and we play all kinds of music,” said club manager Enoc Rodriguez.
Security guards patting down those in line might scare some people off, but Rodriguez said there have been few problems.
“When girls start to fight, we break them off right away,” he said.
Customer Carlos Castillo disagreed, “In (other) bars you don’t get searched, so there must be a reason.”
Aristeo Gonzalez, who worked as a security guard at El Flamingo for over 11 years – since it was called Rancho Grande – said no crimes have ever been committed there.
Down the street, El Flamingo patrons own La Movida dance club, 3545 Portland Rd. NE, which focuses on Regional Mexican music, Duranguense, nortena and banda rythms: the fast, polka-derived, cowboy-style Mexican dance. Still, the location attracts a diverse audience.
“I love working here. I’ve gotten to meet people from all over: like Peru, Guatemala, and even from Burma,” said Omar, a bouncer.
The club is currently giving away a new car as the prize for the best dance couple of the season. In the parking lot, there’s a small taco stand that remains open until 3 a.m., like the club. Its menu was explained by the cooks, Claudio and Esperanza, “Pork tacos are called “al pastor” (shepherd-style). We also have “buche,” meaning pig neck, and head tacos, from a cow’s head.”
While some may not be culturally brave enough to eat a pig neck taco, there’s still a wealth of authentic Hispanic nightlife to be experienced.
After a night of bar-hopping Salem Hispanic joints, Suarez was satisfied.
“I don’t feel nostalgic in the way I used to feel several years ago,” she said. “Nowadays, there are so many of us that our culture has become part of the culture here. Experiencing Mexican culture is not something that happens once a year. It’s like Mexican food: everybody eats it.”